The Caregiver Chronicles: The Red Flags

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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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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?

1 Comment

A number of people commented on this post from the MD Anderson Facebook page (

L. Andrews
Isn't it sad how we blame ourselves for all sorts of things when someone else gets a time when we should really be good to ourselves. Wish I could say something to stop people from doing this or feeling this way.

D. Lindsey Scot
In my husband's case of melanoma cancer, I always knew something wasn't right about the mole that has caused this. I mentioned it and the doctor looked at it numerous times with me in the office! Why in God's name didn't I just ask that the mole be removed and then all of this could have been avoided!!!! It's the truth no way around it!!! I knew that mole wasn't right, why did I have to trust the doctor so much with his life????? Just a few words and he would not be going thru this.

Probably had something to do with the mole being covered by insurance. I learned just how much how the tail (ins & pharma)
wags the dog while spending many days at MDACC with my wife.

L. Andrews
No kidding about the ins and pharmacy....gotta be rich to have cancer. Deb...I always say when people say "I should have told him/her to go to doc"... even if you did, would they have gone? They must not have been worried either. The thing is, if we DID know, we'd do something, right? We just don't know.

Marisa Ramirez
Judy, thank you for writing this.

D.Lindsey Scott
Actually my husband went in for his regular checkups and has for 15 yrs. Our ins. is very expensive and co-pays are also expensive. I put way too much faith in the doc and that is what I really regret. By the time my husband's appt. came up, which was just a couple of weeks later after this mole began bothering him, he already had large knots under his arm. He was very concerned, but now we are dealing with Emory and checking into clinical trials after one more surgery... I feel like I knew the mole could be problematic just by looking at it for the last 17 yrs. But the doc always said it was fine and three months later we are at Emory and him having to deal with all of this. If only - Remove the mole.

L. Andrews
Well, if you are going to take "somebody's" word for something, can you faulted for trusting a trained professional? I don't think so. Even if you looked at for 17 years..because you see it everyday, the changes would have probably appear...ed gradually anyway. Like we don't notice someone's kids are so grown until we don't see them for a while. Same thing. Better to concentrate your energies on something more positive than blaming yourself. You've learned a lesson right? That's the best that you can do. Cut yourself some slack. You hear me??? :-) ·

D. Lindsey Scott
You are right Lynne...No need in what iffing now...besides I have too much to deal with in the future than worry about the past and what could have been.. Thank you.

Laura Nathan-Garner
I love these posts, Judy.

L. Andrews
You are most welcome Deb. It is a time to be good to have enough emotions to deal with. Come bug me now and then, and I'll cheer ya up!! :)

N. Leitão
I`m used to deal with people with cancer and their family. It`s so difficult but it`s not good for anybody to try find why we didn`t see it earlier? It´s quite impossible in most of the cases see how it starts. Please don`t think about what could have been. Who knows? Think about future. Past never gets back.


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