Man and woman stand together in front of a clock

The Gift of Watchful Waiting

“Cwoh-wing.”

That was how my son said “clothing” when he was very small. One Christmas before a large family gathering, when he was not quite four years old, we had a talk with him: When you open a gift, smile and say “Thank you,” even if it’s something you didn’t want. Even if it’s clothing.

After opening a lot of gifts from very generous relatives who really enjoyed giving him shirts with fire trucks on them, but not actual toy fire trucks, he had enough.

“Cwoh-wing!” he yelled. “Why does everybody keep giving me cwoh-wing?!”

And so, “cwoh-wing” became one of those insider words that families have that no one else understands. For years, my wife and I have used it as a reminder to our kids (and to ourselves) to appreciate what you have, even if you had hoped for something else.

A wish for Christmas

As the year comes to a close, we’ve been thinking about the holidays, especially that first Christmas after I was diagnosed. I got the news in January, so by Christmas, we’d had a full year to get used to it. Because my follicular lymphoma was growing so slowly, I was able to watch and wait, and hold off on treatment until my symptoms became problematic.

This was not how it was supposed to be. After my diagnosis, my wife (who is a planner) used what she had read online, and did some math. She imagined that I would receive chemotherapy immediately. My treatment would be over within a certain number of months. I would have a follow-up scan. Then by Christmas, we’d receive the best gift of all: a clean bill of health from the oncologist. Freedom from cancer.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. I watched-and-waited for a full two years before I needed treatment. Like the Grinch, my slow-growing lymphoma came and stole that gift from my wife. Her dreams of a cancer-free Christmas slumped like Charlie Brown’s sad tree. All during the holidays, my lingering diagnosis hung over our heads like poison mistletoe.

(My gift for bad Christmas comparisons remained intact, however.)

Looking for the good

Now, I am not one to think of cancer as a “gift.” I know many people take comfort from looking at it that way. And I wouldn’t have to try too hard to find little “gifts” that cancer has given me. A better appreciation of my wife (the greatest gift of all). The importance of health insurance. Enough understanding of science to know why I should be extra careful during a pandemic.

But that first Christmas, we didn’t necessarily see watching and waiting as a gift. Looking back, we see it differently.

Watching and waiting is only recommended when the lymphoma is slow-growing enough to not cause problems. The idea is that, with an incurable cancer, it’s possible that a full life is ahead, but it might be a life of treatments, potentially getting more aggressive with time. Watching and waiting wasn’t putting off the future for two years. It was enjoying two years without treatment and its side effects.

We can never really know how much we’ll like a gift until we get it. One patient’s cwoh-wing is another patient’s fire truck. At this time of year, during a year like the one we’ve had, it’s probably more important to remember than ever.

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