Cancer survivors discover a wisdom about their lives


September 22, 1991|By Mary Knudson

In January 1984, Hodgkin's disease ripped like a cyclone into the lives of Edward Mehl, then 24, and his wife, Valerie, who was 22.

Lymph cancer was a force that threatened the young couple's marriage, then bonded it tighter than before and changed the direction of Mrs. Mehl's career from banking to communications.

The impact cancer had on the Mehls' lives after the disease retreated is typical of what many cancer survivors find. Coming eyeball to eyeball with mortality jolts some survivors and their spouses into a deeper realization of what is important in life.

"I guess I always thought [cancer] was either a tragedy or something to be gotten over and forgotten," said Nancy-Bets Hay, 49, of Towson, who had breast cancer three years ago. "It's neither of those. It's a tremendous personal growth experience. I hated having cancer, and I hate being scared about having it recur, but growth doesn't usually come out of easy things."

"Cancer survivors have a general wisdom about life," said Bill Soiffer, a San Francisco journalist who writes about his unusually harsh and lengthy 15-year experience with recurring Hodgkin's disease in a recently published book, "Life in the Shadow: Living with Cancer."

He said, "They don't take anything for granted. They're gutsy and assertive. They also have a new sense of time. They need to make every minute count."

It is common for anyone who survives a life-threatening disease to reassess priorities, and often, though it may be difficult, they live up to the new priorities, said Dr. Nathan Schnaper, professor of psychiatry and oncology and head of psychosocial services at the University of Maryland Cancer Center.

Valerie Mehl says her husband's cancer took their marriage on a roller-coaster ride. "I think the toughest time we really had was the year after he went into remission," she says, looking back on the emotional changes that occurred in both partners. "I didn't think our marriage would survive. During that first year of remission, we were always fighting each other."

It had been different during the illness itself.

The day Ed Mehl was told at St. Agnes Hospital that he had cancer, Valerie Mehl came home devastated. She looked at her husband's clothes hanging in the closet and felt a pang of deep loneliness, wondering, for the first time, if he might die and never come home.

Over the next year, he was treated with chemotherapy as an outpatient, which often left him nauseated and weak. But he received a lot of attention from his wife, both their families, friends, his doctor and nurses. And his spirits were usually up. He would often go play softball after getting a chemotherapy treatment, though sometimes he had to run into the woods to be sick.

And then, one day, it was over. Having cancer was just over. And the extra support he had enjoyed was gone. But he still felt tired and vulnerable.

Mrs. Mehl didn't understand then what the change was like for her husband. Now she does. "Once you're in remission, that's it. Every body thinks you should just be happy," she said. "I guess we thought after this is over, we'll go back to the way we were, but you can't." In fact, they had to get to know each other again, she said.

The Mehls are opposites in many ways, a relationship that provided balance in good times but increased tension during the stressful period. They grew up together and went to the same high school. But then she went on to college, and he opted for the Navy and became a diesel mechanic.

At the time he finished treatment for his cancer and the disease was in remission, she returned to college for a master's degree. He went through a combination of depression and childlike do-as-you-please behavior, going from one job to another.

While she worried about keeping bills paid, he bought a boat and said he didn't believe in worrying about anything.

They quarreled constantly until one day Mr. Mehl packed some clothes and said he was leaving for a while. After he had gone, and the house was quiet, Mrs. Mehl walked into the bathroom and her eyes riveted to a pink shampoo bottle turned upside down in the shower. She felt that pang again. It was the same one she had felt the day he was diagnosed a year and a half before when she saw his clothes in the closet.

Turning the shampoo bottle upside down was a habit of his, and sort of "a part of him," Mrs. Mehl said. "I realized I really do love him." She ran to the phone and called him, and he came back home that night.

A couple of visits to a counselor and a lot of long talks helped the couple put their marriage back together, and they now have a 3-year-old son, Edward Mehl IV.

Out of her own growth in knowledge about how cancer affects people's lives, Mrs. Mehl decided that she wanted a job educating the public about cancer. She got the job she was looking for as director of public relations for the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center. Mr. Mehl has been a shop foreman for Ryder Truck Rental in Baltimore for five years.

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