How many ways can cancer break your heart

Seemingly the possibilities are endless.

Upon first hearing ‘you have cancer’ we were forced to face the specter of mortality; in our face and way too close for comfort.

Next up was the impact our diagnosis had on friends and family and if we were parents, our children–now suddenly faced with challenges that had no rightful place in the happy childhood we’d imagined for them.

Loss was a word that soon figured largely in our everyday existence, with bodies that suddenly looked and felt very different as cancer became part of our identity on both the meta and purely physical level.

Stress and anxiety—our finances, interpersonal relationships, jobs. Everything was suddenly at risk.

However, that didn’t stop each of us from trying to put a brave face on. We sucked it up and made an honest effort to find the silver lining in cancer. Certainly there was opportunity for personal growth, but at a cost oh so dear.

And then we discovered that the one really good thing to come from our disease was each other.

Since my diagnosis, I have had the privilege of knowing, interacting with and often growing quite close to an incredible assortment of extraordinary individuals. Brave, gracious, generous, kind, caring, fun. Lovely, lovely people who have made my life so much richer.

However, there is an obvious downside to falling in love with others who are battling cancer and that is the potential for heartbreak.

Last week the lung cancer community lost someone who had touched the hearts of many. Maybe it was her youth, the fact that she was a young wife and mother, or perhaps it was Elizabeth Dessureault’s radiant smile and outgoing personality that made her so appealing and accessible.


Her passing took us each by surprise and the ripple of grief soon became a big wave. Shock and sadness turned to anger and for some, fear.

The truth is, you can have the best oncologist in the world (Elizabeth, like me, saw Dr. Shaw) and although your odds may be improved, the course of this disease remains ridiculously unpredictable.

It is all so very disheartening.

And yet. There is only one way to go and that is forward. You and me. Live and love some more. Because every moment is precious and no one is assured a tomorrow.

19 responses to “How many ways can cancer break your heart

  1. Thanks Linnea – Indeed! It keeps taking one way or another. I lost a young friend last week. Just the latest in a line of people I had met at a support group. As you say we can only go forward. ‘Live and love some more’ is aptly put

    • Tom, I am sorry for the loss of your friend. We have all encountered far more loss than we’d ever imagined but we have also had the privilege of loving both quickly and deeply.

  2. Thank you for your eloquent words, Linnea. You’ve helped to keep my awareness of this despicable disease at a high level. I lost my Grandfather (1965) and Mother (1984) and other close relatives to lung cancer. We’ll never forget…

  3. Great post. It is so difficult to lose people on a similar journey to one’s own. I haven’t gotten used to it. I don’t know that I ever will.

    • Thank you Laura. I don’t believe there is any getting used to it—every loss is still a fresh punch in the heart and gut for me. All we can really do is not allow fear to keep us from loving.

  4. Anita Figueras

    Her light burned exceptionally bright.

  5. So heartbreaking. Linnea, I have been following your blog for sometime, but haven’t ever reached out. My husband Peter is a patient of Dr. Shaw and formerly Dr. Lynch. Elizabeth’s story is so heart wrenching; worsened by, as you said, her youth, her beautiful child, and her radiant smile. But, I am certain Dr. Shaw did everything she could and is so saddened by Elizabeth’s passing.
    As crazy and emotionally draining as this 3 1/2 year journey has been, you’re so correct in pointing out that, the amazing and incredibly committed people we have come to know and love, have kept us positive and been such an enlightening and surprising by product of being “in it”. I can’t say enough positive things about Dr. Lynch and Dr. Shaw. Dr. Lynch changed our life upon our first meeting. So upbeat, positive, and empowering. Dr. Shaw is always so accessible and caring. She has provided us both with strength, clear guidance, and hope. I feel so blessed that some how Peter’s path lead him to her. I am sure that Elizabeth’s family feels the same.

    • Jon, I share your feelings about both Dr. Lynch and Dr. Shaw. I always referred to Tom as the happy oncologist and I am alive today because I was lucky enough to have him as my physician. So cutting edge and yes, so compassionate too. And of course I think Alice is a goddess. And yes, I know she was devastated. She is always devastated when she loses a patient and I have asked her before how she does it—how she keeps going. Like us (her patients) she gets the most out of the relationships and I know she feels as privileged to be a part of our lives as we do to have her in ours. I mentioned that she was Elizabeth’s doctor just because I feel it is important for people to understand that you really can do everything possible in the best possible way and this disease can still be impossible to control. When I would question Tom Lynch per my prognosis he would always respond ‘we are doing everything we possibly can’. And that was such a good, honest answer. It didn’t over promise but also assured me that no stone would go unturned. Anyway, thank you for your comment, maybe someday we shall meet in person. And I wish your husband the very best.

  6. Linnea, So nice to get your response. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Elizabeth and her family all day and I had never even heard about her until your post, which captures all of the feelings and experiences that occurred for us, so articulately.
    I thought it was so crazy and unfair when Peter was diagnosed at age 48, never smoked, beautiful, and rock solid muscle. I wasn’t even aware that some one Elizabeth’s age even got the disease. But, it also made me realize how crazy and random it all is and how those trite comments about make every day count, etc. really aren’t so trite.
    We will hopefully be coming to Boston in a couple of months. Peter will be starting a new trial if all goes as planned. Dr. Shaw said we should meet you some time. She has had nothing but wonderful things to say about you. I would like that, maybe a cup of coffee sometime.
    I so related to your story about when Dr. Lynch told you he would no longer be your doctor and how shocking and scary that was, and then – Dr. Shaw walked into your life and you could breath again. You and Peter are so blessed. I hope your are in a stretch of calm right now and that it lasts a good long time! Sweet dreams!

  7. Keep me posted Jon—I would love to share a cup of joe.


  8. When I meet with politicians my first line is “my wife was six-and-a-half months pregnant the day I was diagnosed with lung cancer.” It’s a compelling line, and it typically gets me a few more minutes than I might otherwise get – my few minutes to beg for funding for more research. That said, Lizzy’s story made mine seem trite – even to me. And she had a knack for words that made my efforts seem juvenile. Semper avante dear Linnea – forever forward. It’s all we can do – keep moving forward. Sad as forward can sometimes seem, it still beats hiding under the bed. All love dear, and do keep writing. It matters. Jim

  9. Linnea, thank you, once again, for finding the words to make sense of all the impossible feelings I have when we lose another person so dear to us. Xoxo

  10. condolences to you. thanks for sharing your story. watching this disease and knowing you can’t help is it’s own hell.

  11. Pingback: It’s time. | life and breath: outliving lung cancer

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