The Caregiver Chronicles: Ours Is Not to Question Why

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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.
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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.

1 Comment

Comments were made about this post on MD Anderson's Facebook page. (

H.J. Stephens
I know the feeling I remember my diagnosis with lupus and I heard an interview with Michael J Fox and they asked him if he had ever asked why me and he answered no... why not me? Then my husband was diagnosed with myelofibrosis in May and again we simply shrugged and said well it had to be someone I guess? It is better to just pray and trust God that His word is true when He says that He has a plan for our lives and that plan is good!! God bless you and best of blessings to you!

B. Brown
I agree H. God has a plan for us all, and because we have cancer is something we might not understand, but I know there is a reason for all I experience. Could be the days I am at the hospital and give a smile to someone who is new, scared and confused. We with cancer are a Family, regardless of the type cancer. God is looking after us, and I Trust Him, and His Plan for me.

M. Quinn Part of what my wife wrote after our son was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 3: "We all ask why. Some are not brave enough to finish the question. The question is "why me? Why mine? At the root of the question is a feeling of self-righteousness. As if bad things happening to me/mine is an affront to my basic good nature... as compared to someone else? The more I've thought about that question, the less I want to know the answer. Tony has taught me a better question. "Why not me?" You learn that question when you look into the face of a suffering child. "Why not me?" That is an honest question. "Why me?" in this context is not. What I deserve, I do not want. I want His grace. God's gifts and mercy are the things that should astound us. ..... That we are accustomed to His gifts... that we take them for granted proves we do not ask the question enough.

N. Leitão
There is no need to ask "why me"? There is no answer. The only way is to try and fight it very strong. God help you all and thanks for doctors, and people who help all of you.

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