In May 2011, at the age of 71, my Grandfather John was diagnosed with Bladder Cancer. I remember this day like it was yesterday. It was a sunny and warm day. My grandparents came to my parents’ house to tell us about the news after his doctor’s appointment. He was told he had to start multiple rounds of chemotherapy as soon as possible. He completed chemotherapy and other treatments which put him in remission for a while. In January of 2013 he had to go for his checkup which included his scans, labs, and to see his doctor right after. His doctors told him there was nothing more they could do for him. He was given three to six months to live. He was determined that he was going to beat this beast. He was not ready to give up. You would think that dealing with my grandfather’s diagnosis was enough stress for my family and I until I was diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer at age 26 in July 2012. During my grandfather’s treatment I was just starting to finally have answers as to why I was sick for so many years without the proper diagnosis and doctors. In August 2012, I had a total thyroidectomy, and I was admitted to the hospital for days because there were complications.
Days before I had to leave for treatment to go to Sloan Kettering, my grandfather asked me several times to go to our local church. It was his favorite church. I finally gave in because on his porch he kept saying, “I will treat you to breakfast afterwards.” He knew I was never a morning person and didn’t care about missing breakfast. Forever he would say, “C’mon Dan, let’s go to church together, I will take you to breakfast afterwards.” He said this every week since I was little. It always made me smile. What got me was when he said, “We must go to this healing mass together so we can heal and fight this together. We will beat this together, I know it. Please come with me. You must believe.” And that’s all he had to say to get me to go. I remember my heart beating so damn fast when he said this to me. I believed every word that came out of his mouth. I truly believed he was going to survive this aggressive cancer. At the time, I was in such a daze that I truly believed we were going to be okay. After looking back, remembering this day nine years ago this year, I am so grateful I went to church with my grandparents. It gave me so much comfort to be there for him to see his smile while he was sitting next to me holding my grandmother’s hand. We were given a healing book and a beautiful blanket that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
In December 2012, my first thought was I didn’t want to continue with my treatment because I knew I would be away from my grandfather. I would be in New York City in isolation after radiation treatment. I wanted to be there for Papa and put my treatment on hold until he got better. He insisted that I should go on and get my treatment done and how I would be home in a few weeks. He promised me he would call me daily, and both of my grandparents did just that. It was so incredibly hard to not be there for him. When I got home from treatment right before Christmas Eve, he was bald. He didn’t even tell me he was losing his hair. I remember him saying, “I didn’t want to upset you.” It was pretty much a whirlwind that both of us had been diagnosed with cancer a year apart. Life was pretty much a blur because so much chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries, labs, and all other treatments were happening all at once for the both of us. On top of that, both of us were dealing with crazy side effects.
My Grandfather took his last breath on March 26, 2013, just two days before his 74th Birthday. We laid him to rest on March 29, 2013, on his birthday. Papa was the kindest human being on this planet. My grandparents owned a family business, which is why he knew everyone in our town. My grandparents did everything for all of us since we were born. Living across the street from them my entire life created some of the best memories ever. Family meant everything to him. Everywhere he would go he would wave and stop and have a conversation with you. He would even pray for you. He always had the biggest smile on his face. He was always positive, which helped me get through my surgery and treatment. My grandfather was very religious and believed that God would heal us. My Grandfather would never ever miss Sunday Mass, EVER. There were only one or two times he missed mass, which was a few weeks after he went on hospice. I remember him being beside himself for missing Sunday mass because he couldn’t walk anymore. I tried so hard to live up my promise and go to church for him after he passed and believe like he wanted me to, but I just couldn’t step foot in his church without him.
The worst day of my life was when he took his last breath right in front of me. My two sisters and my cousins went to the mall to get his fingerprint on a necklace. I couldn’t walk the mall, so I decided to stay on the couch at my grandparents’ house with my grandparents, parents, aunt, and uncle. All I remember was when he took his last breath, and that his hands were raised to the ceiling. I screamed for my father who was in the back room trying to get some rest. My mother ran to my grandmother’s computer room to get my grandmother. And just like that, he was gone. I couldn’t breathe. I felt numb. The worst part was waiting for my sisters and cousins to arrive back from the mall. Having to go through the emotions twice after seeing my sisters and cousins was traumatizing. As hard as it was for me, I continued to hold his cold hand.
I didn’t sleep or eat for weeks after Papa passed away. He was gone so fast, and here I am fighting my disease without him. I really believed we were going to beat both cancers together. He was so positive and uplifting. In the end, it didn’t work out the way we all hoped. That’s life, and I have a very hard time accepting it even nine years later. “Why am I here and he isn’t?” is something I replay in my head often. Is he mad at me because I am still here? I know for sure that he would be so disappointed in me if he knew I felt this way. In fact, I can hear him in my ear saying, “C’mon Dan, don’t think that way, what’s the matter with you?” How could I not? Survivor’s guilt is one of the hardest things to have to manage on top of dealing with PTSD post-traumatic stress disorder. Nine years later, I am still having nightmares of the day he took his last breath. No matter how much I try to erase this image and pain, nothing helps. The guilt of feeling lucky to be alive is heavy. I wish I could have done more for him. But there was nothing the doctors could do. Not to mention, seeing my grandmother and my entire family dealing with the loss of my grandfather is just too much to bear. One minute I am okay, the next I am still bawling my eyes out.
What I have learned is that I wish I had emotional support earlier instead of many years later. Dealing with trauma, a loss of a loved one, and cancer all at the same time has been so much to bear. No matter what you’re going through, know that your loved one is always with you. Grief is very hard. It comes in waves and moments. At first, I didn’t think anything was wrong with me until I started having multiple panic attacks daily. I truly believe I am still alive because of him. He has taught me to have hope, which I always do, and keep the faith, which I am still trying to do, at least for him. In 2016, when I was diagnosed with PTSD, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t the only one dealing with this. I was embarrassed, especially dealing with panic attacks daily. I didn’t even know what survivor’s guilt and PTSD were at the time. I was trying to manage it on my own, but I couldn’t anymore. Just know that you are not alone. My advice to you is seek help as soon as possible. I truly believed I could have dealt with all this trauma without help, until I couldn’t anymore. It took me many years until I had a breakdown. The one thing that has gotten me through so many complications with thyroid cancer and two recurrences without him here on this earth is his hope, which is something I will hold onto forever. You just must learn to take one breath at a time. That is all we can do. I continue to talk and spread awareness about bladder cancer, as well as talk to my nieces and nephew about him. This year, I started listening to his favorite catholic songs just to feel closer to him. He is mentioned daily at our home. Spreading awareness for him makes me feel like I am keeping his memory alive. There’s not a moment when I don’t think of him. I cannot believe it will be nine years since he went to heaven. It feels like yesterday. I know my grandfather is now an angel, always watching over me. But there will always be a hole in my heart. People say it gets easier with time. For me, it doesn’t. There will always be a huge piece missing from our family. My grandfather was the glue that held the family together. Like Papa always said, “There’s Nothing Like Family”.
I must believe my guardian angel is watching over me, forever.