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Life Can – and Likely Will – Change in a Moment

Posted on July 28, 2023 by James Harold Webb

Change is a peculiar thing. Sometimes we might consider ourself lucky if we’re given a heads up that change is on the horizon. This kind of change presents the chance to prepare as best as you can – even though you can’t predict or prepare for many things. The truth is though, this isn’t how change typically works. Real change comes at you fast. Real change is a shark that charges at you from out of the depths, a lightning bolt out of a clear sky, a stomachache that doesn’t seem like much but won’t go away. Unexpected. Without warning. That’s how your life changes. It’s certainly how mine did.

It was after Thanksgiving in 2011, and, as we had done for years, I had just spent the holiday with my wife, Marcia’s, family and hosted an annual invite-only dinner at the medical imaging conference in Chicago. On that Wednesday, we said goodbye to her parents, headed to the airport, checked in, and eventually sat down in our first-class seats bound for Dallas. Hosting a dinner at the show, staying at the Peninsula Hotel, and riding first class will certainly make you feel good about yourself. Yep, top of my game.

I was feeling my normal confident self as we sipped a cocktail and waited to take off. My wife leaned in to me and asked if we could stop by the local urgent care clinic when we landed. She said, “I think I have an upper respiratory infection and may have pulled a muscle doing sit-ups.” We landed, drove to the clinic near our house, and checked her in. She had the standard workup, a brief physical exam, a sonogram, and then a CT scan. Given my former life as an X-ray technologist, I asked to view the films from the CT scan and immediately noted three large masses in her liver and a possible smaller one in the mid-abdomen region. I searched my mind for an explanation and decided that they had to be benign tumors known as hemangiomas—troublesome but not life threatening.

Leveraging my business resources and contacts, we got all the necessary scans and biopsies done – the only thing left to do was wait. A call finally came one morning, and we had our confirmed diagnosis: stage 4 pancreatic cancer. No previous recognizable symptoms, no hints, no pains—nothing—and yet we stood at a crossroad that morning knowing that with this disease, there was very little chance of long-term survival. In thirty-six hours, our world and the worlds of our families and friends were rocked to the core.

As I said, it’s not the moments you plan for that change your life. It’s the moment when you realize that your wife, who has been by your side, driven you, loved you, and supported you, was now standing in front of you carrying around a death sentence in her belly and there wasn’t a damned thing you could do about it. I died a little in that moment. Actually, a lot more than a little. Certainly, the smug self-satisfaction I’d felt leaving the conference was dead and gone, dried up and blown away in an explosion of grief.

I had lost people before. Grandparents and friends, relatives and acquaintances, but nothing like this. Being with my wife, losing her a little every day, was different. It wasn’t something that had happened to me; it was a fundamental change in the definition of who I was. I had been on an upward projection, a line tracking relatively constant forward momentum in a singular direction. This however, changed everything.

I’m sure that, like me, you’ve seen movies or read books where the rich guy goes through trauma and it forces him to rethink his priorities. Scrooge is the guy you love to hate but finds redemption when he is shown life outside himself. You might be tempted to think that was the case with me, but it wasn’t. The truth is the relationship with Marcia had already transformed me in every aspect of my life.

My life changed forever when I saw Marcia’s first scans. A clock began to tick, and I had spent almost seven months going through the grief of her, for her, and with her. I shudder to imagine what else would have changed had I not been on this journey to the end. I’m glad I was there for her, for my children, and for our family and friends. I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world. And yet life moves on. We all experience this in different ways and packages. Hold on tight, cherish the time you have in the here and now, and find a way to keep moving forward. RESILIENCE.