When Jack heard the diagnosis, he refused to believe it. Whatever the doctor said next, he didn't hear it. Everything from that moment on was just noise.
Cancer. Invasive. Aggressive. Terminal.
The doctor droned on about advanced treatments, experimental drugs, and survival percentages, but none of it registered. Jack had tuned him out. This was the third time he'd sat in the same office, in the same chair, listening to the same doctor speak the same words. His shoulders sagged as he let out a deep sigh. He had feared the worst, and now the nightmare had become a reality.
“How is this possible?" Jack managed to utter.
“Sometimes it just runs in the family...," the doctor began.
“But it doesn’t run in the family!" Jack shouted. “Not mine, and not hers!" He jerked a thumb in his wife’s direction. Amy was sitting in the chair next to him. She put a hand on his arm in a futile attempt to calm him.
Jack tried. He wanted to stay calm, for her. He tried to just breathe, but he was overwhelmed with emotion. How could this be?
His stomach lurched as he considered what this meant for Amy, and their family. More of everything, none of it good. More doctor's visits, more blood work, more drugs, more nausea, more vomiting, and more crying.
Jack was all too familiar with the seven stages of grief. He'd read a few books on it. He was practically an expert. Today, he decided he would skip right over the denial phase and jump right into anger. Why is this happening? How is this happening?
“Jack, are you hearing me?” the doctor asked, interrupting his thoughts.
“I hear you Dr. Holst, but I don’t understand," Jack said, exasperated. “How is this possible?” Jack was on his feet now, pacing around the office. “How can three people from the same family, two of them kids, have cancer? All three diagnosed within a year! Amy and I never smoked, we never did drugs, we don’t drink, we eat healthy, we exercise, we drink nothing but water… it doesn’t make sense!”
“I understand what you're saying, but sometimes it doesn't matter. You can do all the right things and still get sick."
"It just happens."
There was nothing Dr. Holst could have said that would have changed the way Jack was feeling.
Instead, he made it worse.
"You’re not alone, Jack. I have a number of other patients with the exact same condition," Dr. Holst said, instantly regretting the words.
Jack stopped pacing, turned to face Dr. Holst and said, a little too loudly, “Is that supposed to make me feel better?! You just told me my son, my twelve-year-old son, is going to die from cancer! First Amy, then Emma, and now Nate. I’m going to lose my whole family to this shit, and I’m supposed to feel better because other people get cancer too?! Is that what you’re saying?”
Dr. Holst was all too familiar with the emotional outbursts that often happened in these types of meetings. He took a breath and replied calmly, “You're not going to lose anyone, Jack. So far, the new medication seems to be working well for Amy and Emma. We’ll get Nate started on it as soon as all of his tests are complete."
Jack loaded another retort, but before he could fire it off, Amy stated calmly, “Jack, sit down. This isn’t helping."
Jack grudgingly plopped back into his chair. He always bent to Amy’s will, but now more than ever. He didn’t know how much longer he would have her, and upsetting her was the last thing he wanted to do. He looked at her and offered a weak smile. “Sorry," he muttered.
“I know how you must be feeling," Dr. Holst began. Jack whipped his head around and glared at the doctor. Realizing his poor choice of words, Dr. Holst moved on. “We’ve talked about this. Sometimes genetics play a role in these things, and there’s nothing we can do."
“Dr. Holst,” Jack said calmly as his wife gently squeezed his hand, “Amy and I have subjected ourselves to every genetic test under the sun. Test you requested. We went to the experts you recommended!” Jack made air quotes with his hands around the word experts. “The tests found nothing. No tumor markers, no genetic variations, nothing. We have no family history of any kind of systemic disease, and certainly not life-threatening cancer. Our parents are still alive and in good health. Our grandparents lived well into their nineties. Our family is the picture of health. Or was.”
Suddenly Amy was up from her seat, moving quickly to the side of Dr. Holst’s desk. She doubled over and began to vomit into his garbage can. Jack was immediately at her side rubbing her back, speaking comforting words and trying to convince her, and himself, that it was going to be ok.
He looked up, locked eyes with the doctor and said softly, “What is happening to my family?”