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My husband, Rick, was diagnosed in June 2000 with grade IV glioblastoma multiform - a brain tumor. We were packing to go to my sister's wedding when Rick had a seizure. I called 911, and he was rushed to Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., where he had an emergency craniotomy to remove the tumor and relieve the pressure in his brain. The neurosurgeon said it was unlikely that Rick would live more than a year or two. At the time, he was 40 and I was 32. We had been married for less than two years and had a 10-month old daughter, Camille.
After Rick recovered from surgery, we did what I believe many cancer patients do. We searched the literature and contacted family and friends, desperate for a referral to a doctor who might give us a different diagnosis or offer us a cure. Unfortunately, all four doctors we consulted agreed with the original diagnosis and suggested similar treatment plans for Rick. However, there was one important distinction among these doctors.
Dr. Patrick Wen, a neuro-oncologist at Dana Farber, closed our consultation by saying gently, "I see that you are a young family. New treatments are constantly being developed for brain tumors that may offer hope, so you might consider banking sperm before you begin chemotherapy." Initially, this comment took me by surprise. We knew that Rick's treatments would cause sterility, but having another child was the last thing on our minds. However, we liked Dr. Wen's idea. It gave us hope for the future - something all the other doctors told us we would not have.
I encouraged Rick to preserve some sperm, but did not really believe we would use it. At the time, I was trying to figure out how I could be a single parent to one child, never mind two. Despite my concerns, I thought banking sperm was an important symbolic gesture for Rick. I believed that for hope to be effective, it has to be reinforced with plans for a future.
For the next four years, I did everything a good wife should do when her husband is diagnosed with a terminal illness. I did research to learn about new treatment options. I contacted specialists around the country to make sure Rick was receiving the best treatment possible. I sought advice on helping Camille cope with her father's illness. In spite of my active role in Rick's care, the truth is that for the first three years after his diagnosis, I was quietly preparing for his death and my future alone.
During that time, Rick had two more brain surgeries at Lahey, several rounds of chemotherapy at Dana-Farber, radiation treatments at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and proton beam therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. The surgeries and radiation would remove the tumor, but each time it grew back again. Right now he is receiving treatment at Dana-Farber that has kept his tumor stable for almost two years.
In February 2004, in a twist of fate, my dear friend Sean Fogarty died after a short battle with melanoma that had traveled to his liver. This affected Rick and me deeply. Sean wasn't supposed to die; Rick was. Sean's death made us realize how fortunate we are to have a future.
It is not easy living with someone who has cancer - particularly brain cancer that can cause cognitive deficits. Rick may seem OK to others, but he can be forgetful and is no longer able to drive or work as an engineer.
However, as the movie I Am Sam demonstrates, being a good parent requires love, patience, the ability to laugh at yourself and be silly, and the ability to listen and not be distracted by the demands of daily life; things that Rick has not lost. As I write this, I realize that Rick's cancer diagnosis made us better parents, because we slowed down and focused on each other and our daughter.
In April 2004, two months after Sean's death and almost five years after Dr. Wen suggested we bank Rick's sperm, we finally had the courage to have another child through this method. Amazingly, I became pregnant on the first try, without fertility drugs. I went into labor on Rick's 45th birthday, and our son was born the next day. We named him Patrick Fogarty Blanc in honor of the two men that gave us hope for the future. Looking back at the sequence of events, I am amazed by it all and really believe that Patrick was meant to be.