SPOTLIGHT: Fading Away: My wife’s fight with fourth stage esophageal cancer by Richard J Cronborg


Debbie and I watched the National and local news stations every afternoon. We watched the numbers of infected and dying in the United States going up every day. We were proud of our governor’s response to the coronavirus in our state of Illinois. Masks became mandatory. Bars and restaurants were shut down. People began to work at home from their computers. They were the lucky ones. Most people were hit hard financially. In March of 2020, the gyms closed. I’ve been a bodybuilder for many years, and this was one of my main links to a social life and a good way for me to blow off steam. I started walking every day. I took three-mile walks in the rain, in the snow, in sub-zero weather in order to keep a modicum of fitness going for myself. My big arms shriveled away, and my weight went from 190 to 158 lbs. All it took was a few months for this metamorphosis. Add to this the outlandish remarks from Donald Trump, his blatant disregard for science and humanity.  As a result, we felt more threatened and despondent. In spite of it all, we had some good times. We cooked, we read, we visited with our immediate family. We were careful.

     In the fall, Debbie found a lump in her breast. My daughter and I sat in the parking lost of Central DuPage Hospital as we conferenced with Debbie’s oncologist. Debbie had a breast cancer that required a lumpectomy. She took it all in stride, had the procedure done and waited for the results. The surrounding tissue after the extraction of the cancerous mass showed no signs of cancer cells. The scar under her left arm pit healed well. They tested her lymph glands as well. There was no evidence of cancer. We were gloriously happy. Debbie had this surgery done in early December. We celebrated a very Merry Christmas, in spite of our fears of the coronavirus. Now, we had a new president whose main concern was making sure that people were getting vaccinated. We were looking forward to a brighter New Year and a better America. 600,000 Americans had died from the coronavirus. Trump unfortunately had not gone away.  Neither did his minions who believed that the election was stolen from him. The big lie is still believed to this day.


All summer long, I noticed Debbie coughing and clearing her throat in the morning. Sometimes, she had trouble swallowing. This went on for a long time, until in December of 2020 we made an appointment with our Otolaryngologist, commonly known as an ear, nose and throat doctor. Doctor Joe, as we called him was ranked by Chicago Magazine as being one of the ten best surgeons in the country. He taught Debbie exercises in order to improve her ability to swallow. He then recommended that she go into the hospital for an endoscopy. We thought her problems were due to the normal ageing process. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

     In early February, Debbie had her endoscopy. My daughter and I waited in my car in the parking lot of the hospital until we were called up to recovery. Debbie was in a bad state. She had the dry heaves and couldn’t swallow. This made her very anxious. I fed her ice chips much in the same manner as I had done when our daughter was born. After about an hour, Debbie was able to take small sips of water or apple juice. She wanted nothing to do with the soft cookies that were offered to her. We took her home and waited. Later, my daughter had to leave to pick up her children and cook dinner for her family. Debbie seemed happier now. She was drinking fluids and eating soft foods. I think she upset herself because of her inability to swallow after her procedure. Who wouldn’t be upset? We were all in limbo now, waiting for answers. The consultation with her oncologist was set for February 8th, 2021. We waited with bated breath.


My daughter and I drove Debbie to the oncology center which is an adjunct to Central DuPage Hospital. The plan was for us to conference on our iPhones. I had my phone on speaker and when the call came and the oncologist started telling us about Debbie’s condition, our hearts broke. Debbie had fourth stage, metastatic esophageal cancer. Surgery was not an option. The oncologist explained that this type of cancer is incurable, and that Debbie would be receiving palliative care. Palliative care deals with the pain, without dealing with the cause of the condition. This cancer is metastatic. This means the cancer can be spread by cells, blood or lymphatic vessels or membranous surfaces. Debbie had her esophageal cancer tumors near the duodenum. They also presented themselves in the membranous sac that surrounds the intestines and stomach. My daughter held each other and cried after we got off the phone. We quickly straightened ourselves out and moved our car quickly to the front entrance of the hospital. There, we had a group hug and cried. What else was there to do? This was a death sentence. The initial shock was astutely put by my wife: “I was gob smacked!” Debbie’s wit and love of British literature and television programs came shining through the dark clouds of the most horrible diagnosis.

     Later that day, I did an internet search for stage four esophageal cancer patients. I did this without Debbie’s knowledge, or course. I found that she’d have to endure many rounds of chemotherapy and possibly radiation. I then looked at survival rates for stage four patients with metastasis. Only 5% of such patients make it to live for five years. This year an estimated 19,260 adults (15,300 men and 3,950 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Most patients with Debbie’s diagnosis last between six months and two years. We did a lot of crying for the first two weeks. I purchased “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kubler Ross, M.D. It focuses on what the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, the clergy and their own families. I remember reading it in a Sociology class I had in college, over fifty-years ago. I was hoping for some knowledge that would help me be a good caregiver. This was to be my role now. Taking care of Debbie was the most important thing in my life.


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