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Keep it to Yourself

judysflowersfinal1.jpgAfter a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective. Read more posts in this series

I wish people who have never experienced the loss of a loved one would keep things to themselves.

An acquaintance said to me she felt people could recover from a debilitating illness if they had a strong faith. I immediately gave her my two cents. I have first-hand knowledge that is not the case.

Letting him go
Tom's last day on earth was a beautiful, sunny April day. The annuals were at their height of bloom. A palette of colors decorates our lawn every spring.

Almost two weeks had passed since Tom left MD Anderson and was under hospice care in our home. Family and close friends came to see him for the last time. Every day was a mini-party, of sorts, because he was still alert enough to "hold court."

So, this particular day didn't have any mark of the end, at least not the way it started. My sister, Joanie, and the hospice nurse raised Tom on the lift to give him a bath. Not long afterward, Tom, sitting up in bed and looking very boyish, received the Viaticum from our parish deacon.

But then, the hospice nurse pulled me aside, "You have got to let him go," she said. I thought to myself, "But I have!"


Caregivers17.jpgAfter a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective. Read more posts in this series

I haven't been myself lately.

I haven't felt like doing much beyond getting up and going to work.

Four-and-a-half years have passed since Tom died. His 58th birthday would have been Nov. 2.

Sometimes I can't believe he's gone. I don't think I'm depressed, but maybe I am. It's all catching up with me.

I've held the fort for so long, and now it feels like my psychological and emotional walls are caving in.

judy tom wedding.jpgAfter a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective. Read more posts in this series

Today, Aug. 22, is Judy and Tom's 30th wedding anniversary.


August also marks the first anniversary of Caregivers Chronicles.

I'm grateful to several colleagues in the Communications Office for suggesting I share my journey with you, and to MD Anderson for allowing me to post the stories on Cancerwise.

I hope it's been reassuring to know that, although you don't forget your loved one, life goes on. You do get better.

What makes the experience more bearable is the establishment of special friendships with people who also have lost loved ones. One of my friends is Bev Warner, who was widowed 14 years ago.

rainbow1.jpgAfter a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective. Read more posts in this series

"I believe in angels. Something good in everything I see.
I believe in angels, when I know the time is right for me."
                Abba


The lyrics from the rock group Abba's song resonate deeply within me. I truly believe in angels, especially those beloved souls who leave us, too soon.

The days march on
Four days had passed since I'd buried Tom. The sun streamed in through the blinds of our bedroom. The radio, which had been silent since Tom had died, beckoned.

When I turned it on, I was blown away.

After a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective. Read more posts in this series

massage.jpgTom valiantly endured a second round of Interleukin 2 treatments shortly after New Year's Day 2005. After the second dose, he experienced extreme chills. Once, he threw up a smoothie a friend had brought him.

That day, I took a break and returned to find him in a dreamy state after a dose of Demerol. When I said, "You don't seem to be taking this as well this time," Tom snapped back, "Don't talk like that."

Care for the caregiver

Whether due to the pain or the painkillers, sharp comments like that sometimes threw me off balance.

And it's at such moments that I encourage caregivers to schedule some time for themselves.

After a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective. Read more posts in this series

Do you recall in the previous Caregivers Chronicle that we were told "neurologic problems might crop up" during or after Tom's IL-2 treatments for renal carcinoma?

Well, they did.

On Dec. 18, day two in his ninth floor hospital room, Tom decided to go for a walk -- down to the first floor, in his hospital gown -- and was escorted back to his room by security.

He insisted that the National Public Radio program, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," was talking about his "escape."

He also asked me, "Who's renting this apartment, anyway?"

Later he asked me, "What time does this place close?"

And the most far-fetched statement I recorded that day: "I know why the Israelites took so long to get to the promised land. They had a bunch of urologists chasing them with buckets."

Thankfully, Tom was lucid most of the time.


caregivers2.jpgA rough homecoming
He was surprised to learn he weighed 248 pounds on Dec. 17, the day he moved from ICU to his current room. He'd entered MD Anderson weighing 224 pounds. Tom didn't want to eat much, and his breathing was labored.

Within the next couple of days, Dr. Papadopoulos administered a special treatment to open up Tom's airways so he could breathe better. There was congestion on his lower lung levels, which the doctor said he just needed to cough up.

On Dec. 21, we learned Tom had an infection at the point of entry at the white central venous catheter (CVC) line. It was removed before he went home Dec. 23.

Once he got home, Tom was miserable. Our heating system went out on Christmas Eve, and the next day he told me he thought he would die that night. IL-2 left his skin prickly and extremely dry, so the extreme cold in the house, although unpleasant for everyone, was even worse for Tom. Luckily, the heating repair people agreed to a Christmas morning visit.

Resolving to make it
Within a week, we were back at MD Anderson for Tom to get a CVC line in his chest inserted for his second round of IL-2. Since it was New Year's Eve, we wrote our 2005 goals.

Tom's top three:


  1. Beat cancer
  2. Finish his novel
  3. Earn his master's degree 

Amazingly, he accomplished two of the three within the next six months.

After a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective. Read more posts in this series

Tom and I walked into Room 40 of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in December 2004, accompanied by Joy, our nurse. Her question, "Which one of you is the patient?" drew a smile from both of us.

Joking aside, we knew Tom was facing his greatest challenge.

Doc1.jpgThe next morning, he would receive his first dose of Interleukin-2 (IL-2), a protein produced by activated T cells in the body, to treat his renal carcinoma.

Two weeks earlier, Tom had visited with his multidisciplinary team to see if his body could tolerate the treatment. First he saw Jean-Bernard Durand, M.D

IL-2 is an excellent drug, Durand said, but there would likely be fluid retention, which might put undo pressure on the heart.

A week later, we arrived at the Melanoma Center for the administration of IL-2. GI medical oncologist Michael Overman, M.D., explained that melanoma and renal carcinoma patients are treated with this biotherapy. In my journal I wrote, "Neurologic problems crop up with IL-2."

The doctor also said Tom would gain a lot of weight, because of the fluid retention, and would feel bloated and short of breath. The remaining kidney could experience detrimental effects as well.

A cheerful Nicholas Papadopoulos, M.D., professor in the Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology, entered the room, and was surprised Tom looked so good. After a quick examination, he announced, "He's solid."

Dr. Papa, as he is affectionately known, told us that Durand had given Tom a good report. He then explained the complicated IL-2 process, and said that Tom should expect 15-25 pounds of fluid retention.

The goal, he said, would be to administer 14 doses. And because there was a chance Tom could suffer a heart attack, he'd be in the ICU for the duration of the treatments.

The prognosis? Just 5% of patients treated with IL-2 experience complete remission.

His next attempt at survival
Back to ICU Room 40. Tom had received a CAT scan a few days earlier, and had also had a catheter placed in his chest for the intravenous treatments.

The first IL-2 drip began the morning of Dec. 14 and lasted 15 minutes. I got to his room before noon. He said, "It apparently worked." Tom looked good, even though he'd only gotten four hours of sleep the night before.

Tom had a second treatment that evening and managed to tolerate seven doses of IL-2 within the next two days. He was extremely bloated, red and short of breath.

Doctors considered giving him one more dose, but because his heart rate was very high, they decided against it. The next day, Tom was moved to Room 926 in the Green Zone.


Next installment: In the wake of the powerful IL-2 treatments, neurological problems do crop up.

Caregiver Chronicles: The Luxury of Time

fancyclock.jpgAfter a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective.
Read more posts in this series

On our first visit to MD Anderson, Tom stayed busy signing what seemed like an endless number of consent forms. There was one for pharmacy, another for X-rays and still another to diagnose and treat, with no promise for success.

After those were done, we maneuvered our way through a number of doctor, scan and X-ray appointments. One of them was with a clinical specialist, where we learned that removing a kidney brings a good chance of survival.

Good news there.

We then saw Tom's oncologist, Eric Jonasch, M.D., a soft-spoken man, who described the possible course of action: Interleukin-2 (IL2). It's an immunotherapy, FDA approved and normally prescribed for melanoma patients. "Avastin," Jonasch added, "promises to be a viable drug for renal cell carcinoma. Unfortunately, it's not yet FDA approved for this type of cancer."

"A final strategy will be announced a week from today once all the results are analyzed." We then moved on to the litany of tests and scans.

At some point later in the afternoon, I left Tom so I could tend to some personal business.

This was a mistake.

Several hours later, I'm comfortably at home and Tom hasn't returned yet from MD Anderson. Even though we had cell phones, I wasn't able to reach him. He apparently was involved with a scan or test and wasn't able to communicate outside the hospital.

By the time I finally reached him, he was exceptionally frustrated. Tom said it would be well after 10:00 p.m. before he was through for the evening. He was expected back at MD Anderson the next day around 7:00 a.m. Since we live almost an hour away from the Texas Medical Center, I told him I would call long-time friends, Lisa and Alan, to see if he could stay overnight with them. They were glad to take him in.

Communication Continuum
As luck would have it, the results were going to be released when I was scheduled to be out of town on a consulting job, but Tom and I agreed we would be better off financially if I continued with the assignment.

So, his sister Joy and her husband accompanied him to hear the results. The appointment was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. As soon as I had a break in my schedule, I contacted Joy by cell phone. What in the world did people do before this technology? The tension and anticipation of the unknown was bad enough, but to not find out for hours must have been excruciating.

Joy shared the news, which wasn't exactly surprising, but still unsettling. Jonasch confirmed Tom had clear cell renal carcinoma. There apparently are 32,000 cases of renal cancer diagnosed per year in the United States. Eighty percent are clear cell carcinoma, stage IV and very aggressive. Joy jotted down in the journal, "D-Day Plan."

Currently, it's a lung metastases only, the doctor told them. So, Tom will receive a high dose of IL2 therapy, which will be administered by the melanoma group. The response rate is about 20%, Jonasch said. He added, "It's not a desperate situation. We have the luxury of time."

So what did that mean? How long did Tom really have?

Truthfully, the only time we seriously faced his possible demise was almost two winters later on the eve of his second back surgery, which was also the eve of his 53rd birthday.

Collapsing in each others' arms, we sobbed at the thought that Tom might not be physically present when our sons got married or when our grandchildren were born.

But we allowed this to happen for only a special, fleeting moment in time, only one short moment. No rest for the weary. We had a battle on our hands.

Black and White Hurdles David MorrisAfter a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective.
Read more posts in this series

Tom's doctor told him he knew he would make it when he stepped into the hospital room during his rounds and saw him shaving, just a day after he was moved from ICU.

"What a relief," I thought when Tom shared the news with me. "So, maybe he'll get through this, even though they hadn't been able to remove all the cancer."

But the harsh reality of our situation set in when one of the nurses at the pod told me, "We didn't think we would see him again." My heart skipped a beat and I realized how lucky I was to still have Tom with me.

He'd made it through the first challenge, but there would be plenty more in the next 2½ years. Another piece of great news was that John Hairston, M.D., Tom's urologist and surgeon, recommended he see Eric Jonasch, M.D., assistant professor in the Genitourinary Clinic at MD Anderson, for the next course of action.

The next hurdle

Once Tom was home, my mission was to get his records from the referring hospital to MD Anderson. Tom's journal on Sept. 28 says, "Hurry up records to MD Anderson." That wasn't so easy.

My notes from that period express frustration that someone in medical records at the first hospital was holding things up. On one hand, Tom needed to heal from the excruciating surgery, but he had an aggressive form of cancer -- a ticking time bomb, if you will -- that warranted immediate attention.

I did my level best to get his information to the institution that carries the mission of Making Cancer History®.

My temperament was at the boiling point, when five days later on Oct. 4, 2004, Tom's records still hadn't reached Susan, the MD Anderson liaison. She was as perplexed as I that they hadn't arrived. She reiterated the required laundry list: all diagnostic tests, pathology reports, patient history and a discharge summary.

Thankfully, the slides arrived the next day, but since nothing else had, I paid a visit to the referring hospital to pick them up in person. Unfortunately, I was advised that since I wasn't the patient, I couldn't take possession of them. Another cause for frustration that day appears in my journal entry, "Three weeks since Hairston contacted MD Anderson on Tom's behalf, and still no appointment!!!!"

A couple more days, void of progress and peppered with frustrating phone calls, passed before Tom's records made it to his next care team. On Oct. 8, 2004, my journal entry says, "Got an appointment Nov. 9 at 10:30 a.m., with Dr. Eric Jonasch. Finally! Yea!"

Some progress being made

Six years later, progress has been made at MD Anderson and other institutions with the development of the electronic medical record or EMR. This system allows referring physicians an opportunity to view patients' records, although it doesn't necessarily make it easier to get the records released from the hospital of origin or get a quicker appointment.

As you can imagine, any wait seems too long when a loved one's life lies in the balance.

Angels in the wings

During your journey, I hope you encounter someone like Laura James, now retired from MD Anderson's Health Information Management group, in the handling of patient medical records. I was lucky to meet James during the taping of a video about employees celebrating 40 years with the institution.

Although James didn't have direct patient or family contact, she always kept her mother in mind throughout her workday.

"I think of my mother being in the hospital," James says. "I would want all her information on the right patient chart, and I wouldn't want any problems."

We can all hope to have a Laura James looking out for our best interests. After all, there are plenty of other things patients and their caregivers must deal with in this curious game called life.

Photo By: David Morris CC  

After a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, north Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective.
Read more posts in this series


winding_road.jpgThe Dreamsicle-colored sun rose slowly as I entered my fourth mile at the high school track. I've just completed the first week of an 18-week training for the 2011 Chevron Houston Marathon, my second attempt at the 26.2-mile run.

My first and only marathon was in 1995, a month before my 40th birthday.

As I round the 13th lap, I recall encountering my small fan base -- my husband Tom and our sons Nathan and Matt -- on that beautiful winter day 16 years ago. I remember the photograph Tom took of me waving as I rounded the curve from Main Street onto University Boulevard.

They were waiting for me again at the halfway point on Weslayan Boulevard.

Then, further down the path, under the arches along Post Oak Lane, Tom and Matt greeted me. "Nathan stayed in the car," Tom said.

The next time I saw Tom, he had only his camera in tow. This was on Memorial Drive, near the park where I'd prepared for this personal feat.

"Where are the boys?" I asked.

"They wanted to stay in the car," he said.

My loyal companion

Tom and I joked early on in our relationship that we had an imaginary "silly old sheep dog." We were like that for one another, loyal to a fault.

But for a while after Tom's surgery to remove the cancerous tumor and his left kidney, I felt abandoned and alone. He had other things to deal with, and they seemed to be more important than me.

In the days leading up to his operation, Tom knew he was facing mortality. This was between him and God. But once he was back home recovering, Tom conducted phone conversations with colleagues and others in a "business as usual" manner, and gave me the proverbial silent treatment.

I was perplexed and hurt. Could it be just my imagination?

The final straw came one Saturday afternoon while I worked in a flowerbed on the far end of the yard. Tom returned from an errand, got out of his car, and made a slow, deliberate approach to the door. Our yard is large, so he wasn't that close, but at least within distance to wave to me.

"Why isn't he looking this way?" I wondered.

Not acknowledging me may not seem like a big deal to most people, but it struck a harsh chord with me. In the past, Tom would always either look up, smile and wave, or even walk over and catch me up on things.

To get over this impasse, I gave him a creatively-framed scripture verse from Psalms 91:11: "For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways."

After that, he let down his guard a bit, but I still felt I needed to confront the issue. I can't recall the full conversation, but I do remember saying, "I'm still here" -- hoping he would once again include me in his thoughts and feelings. That may sound a little selfish considering what he was facing, but I wanted to emphasize that we were both alive and should be available to each other.

From then on, it became our journey, not just his.

Seventeen years later, as I train for and eventually run the marathon next January, I know that Tom's spirit will be present, not only at strategic points along the course, but every step of the way.

After a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, north Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective.
Read more posts in this series

question_mark.gifLabor Day marked the sixth anniversary of Tom's diagnosis. Although his illness caught us off guard and reeled us from our comfortable spot in the universe, I can't recall that we ever asked, "Why us? Why Tom?"

There was plenty of time for questions as we waited for his surgery later that week.

The surgery to remove the mass and Tom's left kidney would be a challenge because of the size of the tumor, said urologist John Hairston, M.D., when he paid a last visit to Tom's room. Dr. Hairston also mentioned the possibility that extensive bleeding could occur, although he said he'd never experienced it during one of his surgeries.

Never say never, as the saying goes.

Around noon, Tom was taken to pre-op, where our son and I joined him until he would be moved to the operating room. To mask my tears, I kept my camera in front of my eyes to capture the moment. Tom and I were avid amateur photographers, and we'd chronicled every stage of our lives since we'd first met in the late 1970s. So taking photographs wasn't unusual for me -- nor were my tears. (I can attend the wedding or funeral of a complete stranger and still cry.)

Once Tom went into the operating room, several members of his family and a couple of our friends joined the vigil.

Time in the waiting room seemed to run in slow motion. Despite the void of information, my thoughts were focused solely on what was going on in the operating room.

By late afternoon, we learned the surgery had been successful. I made several calls to the recovery room to get more information, and was told the surgeon would be out to see us. When Dr. Hairston appeared, he looked weary as he told us there'd been a need to give Tom a transfusion. But Tom had made it through, he assured us, and was OK. Soon he would be sent to the ICU.

By early evening I was alone in the ICU waiting area while I called other family members and Tom's colleagues. Around 10 p.m., I learned that Tom was asking for me. I didn't know what to expect as I walked toward ICU. But I felt as though I were swathed in a warm, nurturing blanket held by an angel, because I was calm and in control as I approached his bed.

With a thick plastic breathing tube down his throat, he seemed agitated as he tried to communicate, instead expressing himself with his beautiful blue eyes. He grabbed the pad and pen someone had given him, and scribbled questions that were almost illegible.

I still have the paper for a keepsake.

"But what's happening? I also have an overactive gland in my mouth," (not realizing he had a breathing tube down his throat).

After a nurse made adjustments to the tube, he scribbled, "It feels much better, but hurts. When may I move it? Thirsty."

Later: "Explain why I'm here, and when do I go back to my room?"

I answered those questions and others the best I could.

But never once did he -- or we -- ask why this was happening to him.

Tom would only raise the question later in ICU in reference to the young woman lying in a coma in the bed next to him. The victim of a one-car accident on her 21st birthday, the only child of two grieving parents would eventually succumb to her injuries.

"Why did she die and I survived?" Tom asked.   

Though many challenges lay ahead of us, I'm so grateful we had more time together.

I can't imagine what it's like to lose someone without having a chance to say goodbye. I hope I never do.

The Caregiver Chronicles: The Red Flags

After a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband, Tom, was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective.
Read more posts in this series

Once Tom was admitted to Houston's Memorial Hermann Hospital, a urologist and a team of medical personnel examined him. The lead doctor said the surgery to remove the mass and his left kidney would take place on Friday.

"Why wait three days?" I asked. "We don't want to rush into it," is what I recall him saying, although I'm certain he seemed perturbed that I asked.

He also confirmed that the mass was estimated to weigh 7-9 pounds. No wonder Tom's waistline had expanded to the extent that he looked like a miniature version of Henry VIII, I reflected. Shamefully, I had thought it was his consumption of alcohol that caused this, though perhaps that was partly responsible for this predicament.

RedFlag_final.jpgWere there other warning signs we had both ignored?

Tom spent most of the day slightly medicated while the large tumor sloshed about, ready to leap out of his body at the first opportunity. I was coiled up on a chair that pulled out as a daybed, having an all-day pity party.

I believe this is where my deep grieving began. I simply could not stop crying. The only time I maintained control of my emotions was when a nurse stopped by to check Tom's vitals or the doctor stopped by.

How could I have overlooked this? I remembered hugging Tom a few weeks earlier, and being startled that his stomach seemed extremely tight. But I shrugged it off, because he often consumed a few beers when he got home, and sometimes had a Scotch and water before calling it a night.

There were other red flags, if our eyes had been wide open.

On another occasion, we had grabbed hamburgers for a weekend meal. I've always had a ravenous appetite, and quickly downed my food. Tom was almost apologetic when he said, "I haven't been able to eat a whole hamburger lately." I was surprised to see he barely finished half of it.

Before you assume that Tom mirrored the statistics that indicate men don't have checkups as frequently as women, let me stop you there. He actually was better about visiting his doctor than I.

Because of Tom's weight, the doctor often sent him home with a prescribed diet.

But Tom was never grossly overweight. In fact, when we first met, he was almost too thin, weighing in at 164 pounds on his big-boned, 6-foot-1-inch frame. In recent years, Tom weighed around 215. Men tend to gain weight after a few years of marriage and good home cooking, right?

He was on medication for high blood pressure, which might've been a symptom of his current situation. But he thought it was hereditary, since both his parents were treated for high blood pressure.  

One Saturday, after his latest doctor's appointment, I'd glanced over at him in his skivvies. Suddenly, he reminded me of Akhenaten, the pharaoh immortalized in a Houston Grand Opera production in 1983. Akhenaten had a slender body, with the exception of a protruding tummy.

I held my tongue. Too many times in the past I had suggested he lose weight. "Let him alone," I thought. "He's fine just the way he is."

The other ailment Tom was experiencing was throwing up every morning after breakfast. It was like clockwork. He'd eat, head out the door, and before stepping into his car, he'd regurgitate everything.

Why hadn't I been more inquisitive? Was I not caring enough?

After a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband Tom was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective.
Read more posts in this series


By Judy Overton

overton_helicopter.jpgMy sister Jackie reminded me last weekend that Sunday, Aug. 22, would've been Tom's and my 29th wedding anniversary. We always favored the day we met, May 5, 1977, so it's not a surprise that I needed a reminder. However, as I reflect on our wedding day, I'm reminded of one line in the vows:

        ... in sickness and in health ...

We had just finished dinner on Labor Day six years ago. It had been a quiet weekend. Tom had studied for a class he was taking toward his master's degree and had made some marvelous ribs. I was on the phone with a friend around seven that evening when he entered the kitchen, doubled over in pain. "I need to go to the emergency room," he said, with a lot of effort. I got off the phone and we drove to the hospital about a mile from the house.

We should have called an ambulance.

We reported Tom's symptoms to the receptionist, and were directed to chairs in the busy waiting area. Our wait dragged on for 2-3 hours, during which I made several trips to speak with the receptionist to see when Tom would get into the inner sanctum. She said, "We see the people brought in by ambulance first, and then the most serious cases after that." Isn't urinating blood and having excruciating pain pretty serious, I thought to myself.

After one of these frustrating exchanges, another woman approached the desk and was given a similar line. She walked up to me and said, "Do you know they haven't even offered my husband any ice for his ankle?" The man had been sitting in a wheelchair when we first sat down in the lobby. His ankle was extremely swollen. "What's wrong with your husband?" she asked.

"He's urinating blood," I replied.

"And that's not serious?" she responded.

Tom eventually made it to an emergency room with the temperature of a meat locker. He was not only in great pain, but extremely cold. No one seemed to be tending to him. I know he produced a urine sample after they requested one, but other than a nurse getting his vitals, that was the extent of the check-up.

My timing may be off a bit since six years have passed, but I recall a nurse asking Tom to again give her a urine sample. "I did," he responded curtly. When she saw that it was filled with blood, she looked startled and got into action. "I need to order an MRI," she said. It was around 4 a.m., and Tom would be taken to the MRI room. Since I couldn't settle down in the straight-backed chair, I told him I was going to go home and get some sleep. "Please call me as soon as you know something," I pleaded.

About two hours later, the ringing of the phone awakened me. It was Tom. "They found a large mass, and are transporting me to Hermann Hospital," he said calmly.

 "I'll be right there," I replied. After collecting myself and quickly getting cleaned up, I drove back to the hospital for a short wait. I followed the ambulance to Hermann Hospital, where I'd been many times before as a news photographer awaiting the arrival of a shooting victim or a patient being brought in by the LifeFlight helicopter.

This flight would be for the life of my love -- my very best friend.

Contact Judy Overton at jboverton@mdanderson.org.

Until Death Do Us Part ... Really?

After a long and successful career in broadcast journalism in Houston, North Texas and Oklahoma, Judy Overton joined MD Anderson in 2008 as a senior communications specialist. Her husband Tom was treated at MD Anderson for renal cancer. He died in April 2007. Judy's occasional posts will cover aspects of the cancer experience from the caregiver's perspective. Write to her at jboverton@mdanderson.org.

The Caregiver Chronicles, Part 1
By Judy Overton

Each time I visit my husband's grave, I can't help but zero in on the date of his birth - November 2, 1953. Tom died a little more than three years ago at the age of 53. My eyes then pan to my name and date of birth: February 23, 1955.

I'm 55 years old. My next thought is, "What would I do if I knew this would be my last year on earth?"

For one, I've always wanted to share Tom's and my cancer experience with others by writing a book. In fact, the title I've given this blog is the one I planned to use for it.

I often talk to my closest colleagues about my husband and our experiences during our more than 30 years together. Of course, sometime when I share moments of his diagnosis and treatment, my pent-up emotions can't help but surface. Recently, after such a conversation, a colleague suggested that I contribute to the Cancerwise blog in order to share my experiences with other caregivers.

Caregivers, my heart goes out to you. 

A family member once corrected my use of the term, insisting it should be "caretakers." My immediate thought was, "Doesn't she know! Caretakers don't take anything, but we give everything we've got."

It just seems appropriate that I'm writing this just a few days before the beginning of Caregivers Week here at MD Anderson.

In truth, my husband was an ideal patient who so appreciated my efforts. Toward the end of his life, Tom would often say, "You're an angel." But I never could accept it, and would flinch at the thought, because I knew how imperfect I was. My curt answer would be, "No, I'm not!"

I felt I was falling short in so many ways.


The "Birth" Date


empty trackTom's diagnosis occurred six years ago, in 2004, during the Labor Day weekend. He casually told me on that Sunday morning that his urine was mainly blood. I was a little stunned, but since he wasn't experiencing pain, we agreed he would make an appointment with a physician on Tuesday after the holiday passed.

Still in shock, I consulted a medical diagnosis book. Under "urinating blood," I was led to information about prostate and renal cancer.

Cancer? Could it really be that? We were enjoying our first full year of having an empty nest. Our younger son, Matt, was now a sophomore at the university where Tom worked, and his older brother Nathan had been in college for about three years.

Things were running so smoothly, and we were now connecting at a much deeper level than ever before.

After my consultation with the medical books and sharing the unsettling news with Tom, I went for a walk at the high school track.

(We both would walk at the track on weekends, but we always went in separate cars. Tom liked to cruise the small town where we lived before he began his walk. I preferred to get right to the heart of the matter. In fact, people didn't know we were married, because we wouldn't walk together.)

During the walk, I remember thinking, "I could be a widow before I'm 50."

I shed a few tears, then decided I really ought to wait for a professional diagnosis before burying him!

And as I looked across the field to where Tom was strolling, I wondered what was going on in his head, too.

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