Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Biggest Fan

I remember the first time I had to talk about my dad’s cancer. I was in high school Spanish class and one of my friends asked me from across the room how my dad was doing. It was a small town and everyone knew everything about everyone else. I stood there silent, not wanting to talk about it, in true stoic Knutson fashion, acting like everything was going to carry on like it always had. And for the most part it did. In the late 90s my dad had a couple surgeries to remove areas of skin and a lymph node to combat against Melanoma. My dad’s lifestyle changed a bit. He wore long sleeved shirts and pants when he golfed and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat when he skied. He moved his golf matches to early mornings or later evenings and stopped playing our Country Club’s men’s league, which took place in the heat of the sunny afternoons. I don’t think he minded too much, since he could still get in a lot of rounds after work as he chased the daylight, but I'm sure it wasn't his happiest decision to make. My dad was once a "+1" handicap and won our club championship more times than I can remember, so taking him out of league play was the equivalent of taking the hometown 2:30 marathoner out of the local racing circuit. I think deep down he missed playing in a competitive league every Thursday. But for the rest of the family, we could mostly carry on. We loaded on the sunscreen, took lots of caution in the sun, and made annual dermatology appointments. But mostly, cancer was just something my dad had (at one time), but we could kind of forget about it.

Years later it was 2010 and I was racing for the first time in Kona. My dad had mentioned some pain in his back, but he wasn’t too concerned, as he had back problems over the years. Several weeks later, it was two days before I was supposed to fly home to MN to be in my friend's wedding Thanksgiving weekend. It had snowed in Seattle and things were just a little off. I remember picking up the phone and hearing my dad's voice crack as he told me he was going in for emergency surgery to remove a malignant tumor that had formed and was approximately the size of a tennis ball. All this had come as a shock. Yes, my dad had been in and out of dermatologists’ offices for years, but we all thought, including several of his doctors that his surgeries in the late 90's and several treatments had kept the disease at bay. Besides, several weeks earlier my dad was his old self - watching me race my first Ironman Kona and then flying to Florida with my mom for a dental convention-golf-Florida Keyes whirlwind vacation. Despite the large tumor that was slowly forming near his spinal cord, the man knew how to have a good time.
I remember hanging up the phone and falling to the floor in a flood of tears- angry, sad, confused. I called my friend, Ellie, who was a resident at Mayo Clinic and could explain to me, very objectively what to expect the day of his surgery. Things like - it will take much longer than you expect, so if you don't get a call immediately after the expected time, don't panic. The surgeons will likely be going back and forth with the pathologist to inspect the tissue and any malignant areas. Ellie, with her calming nature, really made me feel better.
Two days later my uncle picked me up from the MSP airport and brought me to the hospital to visit my dad whose surgery was a success. When I asked my uncle how my mom was doing, he told me, "She seems okay. I found her hours into the surgery in the waiting room reading. But I also noticed she was on page 2 of her book." My mother has been a solid rock for all of us, wiping away tears and going to every single one of my dad’s oncology appointments. I didn't cry when I saw my dad his hospital gown, but it was a shock. His face was swollen from the hours of surgery and he had a scrape on his face from the adhesion that stuck from being face down for over 5 hours as the doctors carved into his vertebrae. My dad, mom, uncle, and I had our very own Thanksgiving dinner in one of the corners of the surgical wing of Abbott-Northwestern Hospital. In true Knutson fashion, my uncle snuck a bottle of wine in to pour into Dixie cups, as we toasted and were thankful for a successful surgery.
As the year progressed, my dad went through radiation and chemotherapy treatments. He wasn't able to ski over Christmas as he had originally planned (it was supposed to be a mini Knutson family reunion with his brother and the nieces, nephews, and my dad's great-nieces and nephews). But he insisted that I still ski, "I'd rather have you out on the ski hill with your uncle and cousins than home in the living room with me." So, I obliged and was able to ski 5 days with my relatives, while my dad was receiving radiation treatment at home.
By February 2011, he had a break between radiation and chemotherapy and was able to ski again; I was lucky enough to join him for that trip. My dad lives for skiing; I believe it's where he was his happiest. The weeks of chemotherapy were hard, but he was able to get it administered in my hometown and had a full schedule of dental patients around his chemo schedule. Things started to look better. In May, my siblings and I were in Arizona for the weekend for my grandmother's funeral. The night before we flew home, my dad sat us down and explained that Stage IV Melanoma typically has a 1-2 year life expectancy. Once again we all hand our tears. It’s one thing to look up the different stages and life expectancy of cancer patients on the internet; it’s another thing to hear it from your dad and know that it's real. Considering the fact that I look up to my dad in just about every way possible, this news was hard to take. But I also promised him I’d take his advice and not change my life just because of his diagnosis. I would train hard and race well, all the while thinking about my dad and PRAYING for scientific advancements to extend his life.
Now here we are, more than two years later and my dad is still around to give me advice on life’s instructions. His sage advice has included things like: “sports are cruel” whenever I've had my lows in athletics or things seem unfair and how to be a good sport whether you’re winning or losing. He's given me tips on everything from jobs to investments to ski trips to travel to spending time with my relatives to preparing for a big athletic event. And while I’m forever thankful for every day that he is alive, the rollercoaster that is cancer had become quite tiresome.

He’s received rounds of CyberKnife treatments, several different types of chemotherapy drugs, any many different MRIs, CT, and PET scans. They've found growths near his brain and liver, which is common with Melanoma. He has weekly visits to an assortment of doctors. And although he is getting good care, there's no shortage of anxiety for all of us who wait to hear updates. I hate to complain about my pains, but on my end there have been too many bike rides or long runs when the tears have just streamed down my face or swims when my goggles get wet from the inside. Last year, I chose some races closer to home, so I could see my dad and I’ve also contemplated hanging up the racing shoes for the rest of the season to visit home more often and be a better daughter (or at least feel like it). I’ve found myself crying in the car, on walks with friends, and on my boyfriend’s couch. Even some afternoons at work it just hits me pretty hard. Having a support network available has helped me cope, but I realized the length of my dad’s life is in God’s hands. For that time period, hopefully extended time period, I’m thankful for science and technology advances that have kept him fairly comfortable. I realize there's nothing I can do to help get rid of his cancer. I just have to love him and pray for the best outcome. I hope that he will quickly sell his dental practice, so he can stop seeing patients (though retirement and saying goodbye to his practice won’t be easy) and start spending more time golfing and traveling with my mom.
I will never understand why cancer hurts so many good people. But in my dad’s case, he’s taken his experience to teach his kids and many friends and family that giving up is not an option. Your strong Norwegian will, has once again proven just how tough you are. Happy 64th birthday to my dad tomorrow! Two years ago, we weren’t sure this day would come. I remember my dad thought it was a big deal when Paul McCartney turned 64, so I can only imagine he's pretty emotional about being able to see this day come when not so long ago things were uncertain. I'm sure he'll be humoring my mom singing “When I’m Sixty-Four…” all day. Sixty-four and beyond, we will always need you, even if it’s just through the life lessons that you teach us. I love you, dad!

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64....?
This song is pretty adorable.

From top left clockwise: IM Wisconsin 2009, Hawi with my parents, my dad and mom
skiing on Christmas Day, Blue Sky Basin at Vail with my Dad, Knutson siblings at KFR 2012