Season 2, Episode 1

The first time, cancer was scary because we had no idea what was coming. This time, it’s scary because we do.

Last week, Facebook surfaced this photo from four years ago. Happy memories, it turns out.

Last week, Facebook surfaced this photo from four years ago. It sparked surprisingly happy memories.

It’s been four years since Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer. She beat it back with a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, plus a long recovery that included suddenly curly hair and unexpectedly messy (but ultimately successful) reconstructive surgery.

It was very, very hard. I know it was, though looking back now, it’s hazy and hard to remember everything. I know it tested us, and even broke her, and me, a few times.

But we made it through. Our kids made it through. And these last four years have been some of the best years.

Kids change a lot in four years, and for each of ours, those changes have been amazing. Katie, then 14, was starting high school, and the boys were in elementary school — Zac was nine, Alex was seven. Such growth, maturity, creativity, curiosity has emerged since. Now Katie is 18 and headed off to college, having found her tribe and discovering her courage in standing on her own. Zac, at 13, is taller than us both, wears the same size shoes as me, and has started high school — saying it’s going better than he’d expected, one week in. Alex is 11, turning 12 this month, and is scary smart and a little too sassy. That kid is going to get in trouble, but he’s going to be able to get out of it, too.

Jen has grown stronger than before, with more focus and resolve to move forward, and yet her soft heart has gotten even softer, despite all the reasons there are to be cynical. She takes time every day to read, to study language, to stretch her brain. She still spots uncommon scenes of beauty in everyday life, and we still stop the car, or pause and wait, as she takes a picture. After staying at home for more than a decade, she resolved to get back to work, and found a great company and great coworkers at City Mill.

I think I’ve grown, too, though I can’t be objective in making the evaluation. Every so often I still get too wound up, or raise my voice, or scowl and skulk about. But just as my own dad became a smiling zen master ever since he met his granddaughter, I hope I’ve also found more solid footing as a person and a brighter view of things. I turned 40, and feel 60, but can still feel as giddy or as nervous or as poetic and melodramatic as a 20 year old.

On balance, we’re in a good place. Which is a good thing, I think, as we’ll need a little more than our modest share of grace for the next little while.

Message Received

Jen liked being back in the workforce. Well, mostly. Regular conversations with adults were a big upside, and I surely loved the added income. But being on your feet and dealing with strangers in a retail setting day in and day out took a lot of getting used to after years at home. On the upside, she started feeling more active and fit, showing off her arm muscles and recently starting to wear a belt to keep her jeans up. Sometimes she’d lift something too heavy, and sometimes she’d come home with random bruises, and a lot of the time she’d come home exhausted and achy.

I admit, as a prototypical specimen of the stubborn male, I have been known to preach the “walk it off” school of medicine. But I’d also like to think that over the last four years, after what Jen had gone through, I’ve gotten smarter, more compassionate, and more patient. And the biggest lesson we both learned was to listen when our bodies are trying to tell us something.

So when Jen’s aches and pains seemed to penetrate deeper and last longer, and when almost nightly painkiller pills stopped helping, she went to see her doctor.

nuclear-medicine

That first consult went well. We are both getting older, after all, and doing physical work can take its toll. With chemotherapy in her history, her bones have certainly seen better days. She got referred to a physical therapist, who showed her how to move and stretch to minimize strain and pain. She also got an X-ray to see how her skeleton and joints were doing. The scariest words we heard at first were “scoliosis” and “arthritis.”

When the X-rays came back, Jen’s doctor said they saw some calcification, which sounded like it might be related to arthritis. But she wanted to take a closer look, and scheduled a full-body scan a week later.

On the phone, things sounded fine. But when the X-ray results turned up in Jen’s online health account, it sounded a little less fine.

**SPECIAL ATTENTION** XR LUMBOSACRAL SPINE: No acute osseous injury identified. Multilevel mild degenerative osseous changes. Areas of suspicious increased sclerosis with amorphous borders/narrow zone of transition, given the clinical history suspicious for possible metastatic foci.

As scary words go, “metastatic” pretty much tops the list of scary words for cancer survivors. It’s cancer that has spread. Suddenly the word “possible” became our best friend.

It was a very long week, waiting for the next appointment. I tried to take comfort in the fact that, at least, the doctor didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry. Last time, it felt like we went from zero to 100 miles an hour in a couple of days.

I took the day off from work to go with Jen for her scan. In the morning, we went in so she could get injected with radioactive dye, and we were told to come back in a few hours. We had a wonderful lunch at Aiea Bowl, then went school shopping at Target. When Jen was presumably glowing brightly, we went back to the hospital.

The nuclear medicine technician who conducted Jen’s scan was named Aubrey. Remarkably enough, he remembered us from 2012, when Jen had her last diagnostic scan. Our visit was memorable because Jen was the last patient to be scanned on the old machine in the old ward, as Kaiser Hospital was undergoing a massive expansion and renovation at the time.

Kaiser retired this machine forever after Jen’s scan in 2012.

“That machine is like VHS compared to this one, which is like HD video,” he said. Sure enough, this new scanner was sleek and blue and silent, compared to the metal whirring tank that was its predecessor. I asked what happened to the old machine.

“Probably at the bottom of the ocean as part of an artificial reef,” he said, then reconsidered, then explained the robust aftermarket of medical equipment.

Aubrey had been a tech since 1988, after a first career as an engineer for Exxon, and marveled at the advancements in medicine over the years. I know this because we had a fair amount of time for small talk, as the machine scanned Jen from head to toe. Jen was very quiet, and would later say she was falling asleep, while I watched a screen show Jen’s profile fill with a complex nest of dots and lines. Every so often, Aubrey would zoom in on something, ot press a button, or adjust something.

The new imaging machine is very impressive.

The new imaging machine is very impressive.

“Did you break your toe?” he asked toward the end.

“Yes, when I was a kid,” Jen said.

“These machines see everything,” he said.

There was a minor conversation among Aubrey and his colleagues over Jen’s scans, specifically the images from her last visit. Without judgement, Aubrey noted that it was unusual that Jen hadn’t had annual scans since treatment, and suggested that it would be a good idea going forward.

Soon enough, we were done. As we were walking out, Aubrey said something like, “Go get things taken care of, and we’ll see you next year.” Again, those words. Things?

We went home, and another wait began. This one was short, though, and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. Jen took her phone outside to answer her doctor’s call, and when Alex tried to follow her, I was just a little too short in calling him back.

When she didn’t come back in, I went out to the garage.

“It’s back,” she said. “In my bones, my spine. I need to get a CT scan.”

“Okay,” I said. I should’ve had something more helpful ready to say. “Okay.”

The Bad News Tour

Jen and I put a lot of thought into whether, when, and how to let people know that we were heading back into the cancer fight. Probably too much thought. But it was easier to worry about than just about anything else.

The longest conversation revolved around our kids, and Katie in particular. Two weeks from leaving for college, would getting the news now shock her into wanting to stay back? On the other hand, getting the news after she was away from home sounded pretty horrible, too.

We decided to give them, and our families and friends, the heads up as soon as possible, as one of the few things that we recalled from the first time around was the protracted early days of fear and frustration that built up and boiled over while we waited for a clear and perfect moment that never really came.

The next morning, I went to work, and Jen did too. But before she left home, Jen got another phone call from the doctor, and this time both Alex and Katie were in the room and surmised that something was up. Jen texted me in a panic, saying that she did a poor job of brushing it off.

Jen told her mom first, and then her sister in law, who posted a #fuckcancer meme to Facebook a few minutes later. Jen then told her bosses at City Mill. They were wonderful and supportive and said that they had her back, which wasn’t a surprise. The company has a strong program supporting cancer survivors among its employees, and they’ve always made Jen feel cared for.

I told my bosses, too, and they were awesome. There were tears, there were hugs… one of the upsides of a workplace that’s like family is having open and unequivocal love and support that extends well beyond the office.

As it turned out, Katie was headed into town on the bus that day, so I suggested that she stop by my office for lunch. She did, and we went downstairs to the food court. After some Pokemon Go and small talk, she mentioned the phone call and Jen’s unsatisfying explanation. I took a deep breath and began with a preamble about her growth and strength as an adult, the significance of her leaving home, and our pride and hopes for the next phase of her life.

“You think something is up, and we trust you to tell you now that something is up,” I said. “Your mom told you this morning that we don’t know what’s happening yet, but I’m telling you now that we do know.”

She was upset. She had questions. I tried to be comforting and not condescending, and answered as much as I could given how little we still knew. As expected, she started to question her plans for Hilo. I told her that we had plenty of time to talk about it, but that the best way she could help her mom is by being awesome and kicking butt while away at college.

Every so often, we’d hit pause on our deep conversation in the Dole Cannery food court for a few minutes of Pokemon Go.

“I hate Pidgeys,” I said.

“They’re good for candies,” she explained.

Katie spent the rest of the day in my office, and my coworkers were kind enough to provide her with some work. She loves shredding, it turns out, and did a reasonable job sorting papers. While she made a mess in the conference room, I called my dad to tell him the news. He was taken aback, but immediately supportive, and said all the right things. And that afternoon, my boss Colleen took Katie out shopping as a belated graduation present while I headed down to the radio station.

We met up at Ala Moana afterward so I could see some of the great things they found. Colleen is the best shopper I know. Katie was smiling and happy and tired. We got home after the boys had gone to bed, and Jen and I had another restless night. The high humidity was one reason for that.

Thursday, I got home a little early from work and coaxed my mom out of the house for a walk around the block. As she shuffled slowly beside me, I told her what was up, and she was concerned, in her own stoic way. Then I cooked dinner and gathered everyone around the table.

I started with a question. “Can we first all agree that mom is a rockstar?”

I told them that their mom was strong. I told them that she beat cancer before. And I told them that cancer was dumb enough to take another swing. I said that we always knew it was a possibility, and that we’re going to fight like hell, and that it’s okay to be sad, and angry, and scared, and to feel helpless.

Zac buried his face in his hands. Katie started to tear up. Alex said, “I knew it.”

I said that what’s important is to support each other. That we give each other a little more patience, a little more room, and that the best way they could help would be to help us not worry about things we don’t have to.

“We may not have the best plan for dinner, or we may forget to check your homework, so help us by staying on top of school so we can focus on this fight,” I said. “We will all do our best to be our best, but we will all forgive each other when we’re not.”

At some point what I was saying turned into saying grace. I think it was pretty good. I don’t remember.

Not much chicken got eaten, and eventually I told Zac that if he didn’t want to be at the table he didn’t have to. He retreated to his computer, and we could soon hear him talking to his friends online. I was glad he had them.

Later as we cleared the table, Zac texted Jen and asked to talk. They both retreated upstairs, as they often have, to trade confidences. I was reassured to see him reaching out. When he came back downstairs for a few more minutes of gaming, he looked better.

Friday was the bon dance at my family’s temple in Waipahu. I wanted to make sure my brothers knew the news before the festivities began, but only managed to catch Eathan during the day. I had to break the news to Todd and his wife in the parking lot.

And now, we’re telling you.

It may seem weird to be telling this story publicly, but we gained so much by being open the last time, and both Jen and I have heard heartfelt stories about how sharing our story helped, including stories from other survivors. “If I can help one person,” Jen had written early on… and we’ve met that threshold many times over.

And really, this comes more naturally than the harder conversations we’ve had in the last week.

Having done this before, I was hoping things would flow more smoothly, and be expressed more eloquently, the second time around. But there was still that moment of vertigo before the word ‘cancer’ escaped my lips, the nervous rambling to avoid an awkward silence, and the ridiculous attempt to transition to a little small talk at the end. In fact, despite it being a conversation that I had more than once, I never got better at starting it, nor ending it.

And I feel a lot of empathy for the people we confided in. How do you respond to this kind of news? What kinds of questions can you ask? What, exactly, are you supposed to do after you say you’re sorry?

It’s okay to say that you don’t know what to say, because despite practice, I don’t either. But it is important to us that you know what’s happening. From here forward, every kind word or thought or prayer is a priceless drop in a giant reservoir of support that we will surely draw from as we charge ahead.

The Battle Plan

We still don’t know the full extent of the return of Jen’s cancer, beyond worrisome spots on her pelvis and spine. We don’t know what treatment will be required, nor how it will affect everything. This period of not knowing everything feels like it’s the hardest, even if it probably isn’t, because we’re in the middle of it.

Jen has a CT scan scheduled this week, and the week after next, she has the first meeting with her oncologist — the same oncologist that led her treatment last time, who seemed impossibly young, and who will at least now be four years older. Between those two appointments, we will be flying to Hilo with Katie, spending three days there getting her settled for life on her own.

I keep telling people, and telling myself, that this second round will be easier because so much of the path forward is familiar. But the fact is that what’s familiar is terrifying, and nothing feels easier yet. I want to draw wisdom and strength from our experience, but four years later I’m suddenly afraid that I haven’t fully processed that experience. Will I be fighting with a tested and toned muscle? Or just bruised and tender tissue that I ignored and let atrophy?

What we don’t know is overwhelming, but we do know some things. It will be hard. Some people who love us will be able to help us deal with it, and others won’t be able to deal with it at all. Some things will be helpful, some things will be unhelpful, but good intentions will outweigh the bad. And our family and our marriage and our own selves will be put to the test, again.

To be honest, it’s too early to say that I’m feeling confident. But I am determined, and immensely hopeful that we’ll make it through. We have to.

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33 responses to “Season 2, Episode 1

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about you guys in recent weeks bc I was considering but then had to decline an assignment in Hawaii. Then this came in my email with a sense of dread. But Ryan, you are such a beautiful and heartfelt writer — and clearly an exceptional husband and dad — that while I’m not “looking forward” to Season 2, I feel fortunate that you will provide insight and perspective into something all too common. Here’s hoping doing so gives you some catharsis and sense of community. Good luck.

  2. So much love to both of you…

  3. Jen and Ryan,
    I am so sorry to hear this news! I have tears in my eyes as I type this! Please know your entire family is in my thoughts and prayers! 🙏
    Love and hugs to you all!

  4. Oh, God, Jen and Ryan. I’m so so sorry to read this news. You are all in my thoughts and prayers. I’m sending love through the internet. We’ve only met in person once, but I feel like I know you both. I wish strength for all of you as you face this battle once more. ❤

    ~Genevieve

  5. So heartfelt, honest and real. Although you and your family are on the front lines, we are all in this together. We can give eachother strength and love. Always. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Dear Jen and Ryan,
    My heart is breaking for you and your family. I had the gift of meeting you both at the Lost extravaganza in Hawaii. I flew out from Pittsburgh. Since then I have followed you, Ryan, on Facebook watching your family adventures and your kids grow. Somehow I missed your first round with this horrible thing so this news is shocking to me. I have just read your post, so eloquent and thoughtful. I am dissolved in tears for you. I wish I could do something to help you all. I send you Love, Light, healing vibes, and prayers. You are a strong family and while I’m sure you don’t remember me, you and Jen will always be a part of me. With Much Love, Heidi Hess

    • Heidi, I love the many and varied connections we can have today, and our “LOST” family is still near and dear to our heart! Thank you for your support, and maybe we’ll see you at LOST 2017, or even LOST 2022!

  7. Ryan, I so appreciate your post, and am so sorry that there’s even a Season-2. Even though we’ve never met in person, I feel as though I know your family from all the way over here across the ocean. I am honored that you and Jen chose to make this second journey public, because it means that no matter how far away from you we live, we can support you, love you, and pray for you and your family.

    I appreciate your honesty in this post. It’s not easy to be as transparent as you have been and it gives us a better idea of what you’ll all be needing in the days ahead. I am standing with you in this new battle. You and Jen are strong, but even strong people need to know you’re not alone. Sending much aloha pumehana…

    Mokihana

    • Mokihana, I remain a fan and admirer of you and your life and your online storytelling, an early chapter of which I am lucky to have helped facilitate. Keep on writing, as it inspires me to write… at least a little more often!

  8. Hang in there! Best wishes.

  9. Dear Ryan & Jen,
    You are in quite a fight and so brave to open your thoughts to those of us in your extended, very extended, ‘ohana. I remember meeting your whole family at one time at the books and music festival where I was volunteering for PBS years ago. We’ve known Walt and Gail for years — since the Fasi administration – and Eathan from Punahou years. So, long story short, we hold you all in our hearts and send prayers up for a successful journey thorough this scary venture!

    The Turses

  10. Ryan, thank you. Thank you for sharing so openly and so articulately what you are all going through. You are right in how we are trying to process and understand and attempt to be as lovingly supportive as possible.
    Thank you.
    Love you all.
    Dad

  11. Ryan, this is beautifully written.

    Jen, our thoughts are with you and your family as you prepare for this battle. A battle I’m certain you’ll win, again.

  12. I’m sorry you got the news of the cancer reoccurring . Man that sucks bigtime. I will BE KEEPING YOU IN MY pRAYERS!!!

  13. Amanda From Michigan

    Love to you and all the blessings. Jen is a rockstar, for sure.

  14. After reading what compares to the preamble of a novel, I am compelled to leave a note. I have no idea how I ended up in your blog … likely through Facebook. I feel connected to your family and your story … thank you for sharing your heart so openly without reservation. What an amazing family! I pray God’s hands upon your family as you fight this ugly monster #cancersucks. I encourage you to keep all your writings and have it published one day, first to honor your wife, second to allow others the experience of your writing, your story … it’s captivating. WOW …

  15. My thoughts are with you and your family.

  16. Eloquently said. And for what it is worth, you have an awesome support army of family and friends and acqaintences behind Jen and you. Easier said then done but CHARGE and defeat this monster that has affected everyone directly and indirectly.

    Prayers go out to Jen, you, and the Ozawa families.

  17. Ryan & Jen – About all I can say at this point is that you will be in our thoughts and prayers on a daily basis. Both Kris & I followed your journey throughout the last round, and we will once again be praying for positive results. We are sorry we are so far away physically but we will hold you close in our hearts.
    Lyle & Kris

  18. Petra Wiesenbauer

    Having gone through breast cancer six years ago this touches me deeply. There is always a little tiny bit of fear left that the scary “C” might come back…. My cancer journey was the beginning of many changes that ultimately lead to experiencing life and its beauty filled with gratitude, joy, love and grace. Each day is a gift and I embrace what is coming into my life in a positive way always looking at it from a perspective of learning, growing and expanding my mind, heart and spirit. Fear makes you small, but sometimes it creeps in through the back door. I’m mostly fearless, there is very little that can scare me. It is courage that we can practice every day – it will grow and carry you through the darker times. For me it is also my believe in the divine that is a cornerstone for my life. It gives me enormous strength.

    My heart goes out to Jen & Ryan and the children, if there is anything we can do for Katie here in Hilo, please let me know. We live in Pahoa, Hilo is only 30 minutes….

  19. Thoughts and prayers to you all, Ryan.

  20. Beautiful words Ryan & so touching.
    I was here for “Season 1” Never thinking about there being a “Season 2”
    My heart is heavy for you, the children & especially Jen. A true warrior who will once again beat the big “C”. Testing times are ahead but know that we all support you & will be with you in spirit on the journey, once more.

    Rock on Jen 💞💞

  21. I don’t know what to say. Go kick cancer’s butt another time, Jen. It will be hard, but you can do it. You have a ton of support. If you need something, anything, please let me know.

  22. Ryan & Jen – sending you both prayers of hope and healing.

  23. I “found” you guys when you did your podcast for Lost. I would eagerly wait to hear it every week and it was the highlight of my day. I was always so amazed how well you worked together as a couple – I LOVED those podcasts. Then I followed you on Facebook – I live in NY and have never been to Hawaii but through your FB posts I felt I knew what it was like to live there. I loved reading your family adventures and stories and remember feeling shocked when I read about Jen’s cancer the first time. I followed her progress through her blog and was so happy for you when I read she was better (loved the curly hair;). Reading this now I felt my stomach sink, I am very sorry to know you have more ordeals and battles ahead of you. Thank you for sharing your story, for being open about what is a private/personal time for you. I read this update last night and could not stop thinking of you both all day – I know we will never meet – but I feel like I “know” you and your family a little – so I want to wish you all the best in this difficult time. I have no doubt you will face it head on the way you did the first time – and you will come out stronger and victorious. I wish you strength, that you get through this one more time and never have to deal with it again. Good luck Jen – you seem to be an amazing woman – you can do this. Again. You can..

    • The connections we’ve made online feel no less real, sometimes, especially when they are linked to some of the happiest moments and memories we have! Thank you for your thoughts, and I hope we can remain linked for years to come!

  24. Jen is a ROCKSTAR! Good luck guys. Lots of hugs through the internet and good vibes coming your way.

  25. Aloha and healing thoughts coming your way from a grateful cancer survivor. Recent diagnosis of recurrence, however, mirrored so many of the thoughts you shared. I wanted to let you know that codifying your narrative (from the perspective of spouse/care giver) spoke directly to one of my biggest concerns for my own round 2.
    I’ve familiarized myself with the science side of this illness, I am as comfortable as one can reasonably be with the diagnosis, tests, procedures, and recovery -but worry about the impact of this recurrence on my spouse. I know her to be strong, persevering, loving, relentlessly attenuated to medication and appointment schedules, etc. That’s just who she is. I’d like to understand better – the ways to support the supporters. If you are inclined to do so, sharing more of your thoughts on ways your wife has eased your worries or lessened the load for the village of supporters/care-givers would be of great interest. There are aspects of this experience that are harder on our spouses and family than the individual diagnosed. This time around I want to attend to this with more intentionality.

    Thank you for your generosity of spirit, your strength, your vulnerabilities with such grace. My best wishes for you all.

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