Cancer’s Hidden Gem

It’s the strangest thing, booking a flight to paradise knowing that you’re going there because your dad’s staring down colon cancer. At the airport in Portland, families fortunate enough to be taking Hawaiian vacations are already relaxed, adorned in tropical print, and wearing anticipatory smiles that tell of mai-tais, sunscreen and beaches in their future. I must have looked odd to them, flying solo with a furrowed brow to the West Coast’s playground across the Pacific. The cheery island music that greets me as I enter the bulkhead of the plane is off-melody to me because my ear isn’t tuned to hear it. Not now. Not in this circumstance.

48 hours later, I’m in the corner of his patient room at Straub Hospital in Honolulu, staring at palm trees and the lush hills, and wondering if this is the most amazing hospital view that exists. He’s napping. And I’m counting our blessings. One by precious one.


The cab ride from HNL International to his condo is a bit frantic. A project at work has me searching for a 4G signal to transfer an audio file back to KATU and begging the taxi driver to plug my laptop charger into the dash for extra juice. Figures that something I’d been working on for weeks would drop just as I touch down a couple time zones away.

When I arrive at my dad’s place I’m nervous about seeing my stepmom. She’s just finished her third round of chemo for lung cancer. A non-smoker, Helen was diagnosed as Stage 1 four months ago. Yes, my dad smoked until his first bout with the Big C six years ago. Yes, he only smoked outside on the balcony of their home. No, that measure was not enough to protect my stepmother from second-hand smoke. YO SMOKERS: CONSIDER THAT THE NEXT TIME YOU LIGHT UP.

Helen’s all of 85 pounds, so the chemicals intended to kill the cancer have done a number on her small frame. More than that, she’s now anxious and listless. Meaning, she jumps at sudden noises, and due to long bouts of insomnia that worsened during her treatment, she spends most of the day sitting with her eyes closed until the next sudden noise.

It sucks.

She explains to me that it’s the result of being indoors so much. She and my dad are super active – they play ping pong for hours at the Chinese Senior Center, they dance, they sing, they cook, they laugh. Physical fitness is a priority for them, and that social interaction feeds their souls. Neither of which Helen was able to engage in much the last several months.

My dad on the other hand is asymptomatic. He has a mass in his abdomen and another elsewhere on his colon. The one in his abdomen is operable; the other, located on a blood vessel is not. But he’s bubbly and goofy and looking like an Asian Jack Lalanne. The night I arrived, he showed me the V-sit he does to keep his abs taught. He does 100 push-ups a day. Dude’s a freakin’ specimen.

So, for obvious reasons, and with no other family in Hawaii to help, I understand why they needed me here. My dad’s not the type to ask for assistance unless he absolutely needs it. When he reached out a couple of weeks ago, and hinted that it “might be nice if I could come for his surgery,” I knew this situation had risen to a level that would benefit from my presence.

It’s not the easiest time to take off. Actually, it’s one of the worst times of the year as far as work goes. November’s a sweeps month. In TV-land, it’s when advertisers are paying particularly close attention to ratings, and ad rates are pinned largely on a station’s performance during such a month. I think that’s what it is anyhow – I try not to worry too much about the money side of what I do because I don’t want it corrupting the content. Sweeps months are all hands on deck situations, so my taking family medical leave during such a time is really uncomfortable for me. My Chinese guilt has me all worried what my co-workers are thinking. But my Chinese obligation of respecting my elders is overriding that guilt in this instance. As my brother would say, it’s complicated.

By Friday night, my dad’s out of surgery and it’s been a success. He’s awake, and talkative.

I use the opportunity to ask him questions about our family’s history. I’ve realized in recent years how little I know about my ancestry and its storied past. It includes, for my mom, her family fleeing communism aboard boats and amid gunfire because her dad, a former general and mayor of a province, was on the wrong side of the Chinese Civil war. And in my dad’s lineage, it includes what he called a “a series of twisted fate” hinged on timing. Mostly bad timing.

For example, he explained how his uncle, my grandfather’s youngest brother, was entrepreneurial with amazing ideas but always ahead of his time. How he opened a record store in Taichung around 1950 and sold only one or two records a day. It went under –shortly before record-players began being widely acquired by families in Taiwan. How that same great uncle of mine then decided to raise chickens, roughly a thousand of them. And within weeks of their being large enough to go to market, an epidemic wiped them all out, practically overnight. Then, it was onto pigs. Sixty of those. You know how this ends. Another disease kills off all the market-ready pigs in the span of a month. Not long after that, my dad explains, the Taiwanese government instilled an immunization program for livestock to prevent such devastation.

“It’s so ridiculous you can hardly believe it,” says my dad, shaking his head.

I laugh a lot during this conversation with him. I’m also taking video so I can always remember how he tells these stories.

It’s the little things that get me. As he describes the bakery my paternal grandfather opened in Taichung and expanded to include a grocery store then eventually a department store, I ask him where it was located. He says in Mandarin “near the intersection of Zhi Yo Lou and Chung Gong Lou.”

I check him: “Really dad? That’s what the streets were called?”

“Yes. That’s where it was,” he affirms.

It means the business was located at the intersection of Freedom and Success Roads.

He laughs too as I point this out, never having looked it at that way.

It’s a rich time. I’m incredibly grateful to my co-workers for picking up the slack in my absence. But I know I wouldn’t trade that conversation I had with my dad last night for any award-winning story, or breaking report. No pressing local news issue is going to beat tucking him into his hospital bed, and being here as he wakes up.

Cancer bites, yeah.

But it can nudge you closer to the ones you love.

Sitting up this morning, my dad told the nurse he feels great because of two reasons. One — (he holds his right index finger up) because the doctor has cleared him to eat solid food. Two — (two fingers up) (then he points at me) “because my daughter flew all the way here from Portland to take care of me.”

Doesn’t get any better than that.

24 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jen Lopez-Nutter
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 18:02:03

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. I am sorry to read that your dad and stepmom are ill. Our family sends their prayers.


  2. candycoatedreality™
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 19:13:34

    Sending you love & light!!!!


  3. Mary Frangos
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 19:39:34

    Anna – every minute, hour, and day is a gift for you and your heroic Dad to clasp to your hearts – your being with him helped him so through his surgery and definitely will aid in his recovery – my thoughts and prayers are with you both!!!!!


  4. joydombrow
    Nov 11, 2012 @ 13:20:27

    Thank you for this beautifully written reflection. You are a woman who has her priorities straight and your precious memories will always be proof. Bless you, friend. P.S. I love that picture of your dad!


  5. Susan Dean
    Nov 11, 2012 @ 14:33:14

    Anna, that was really, really beautiful. Thank you for sharing. My father, who grew up in England, died unexpectedly after a knee replacement (he threw a clot that traveled to his lungs and ended his life). I did not have/take the opportunity to ask him questions about our family and about his life outside the US. I’m eternally sorry for that, and oh so glad you took the opportunity especially with video. What a treasure!


    • annacanzano
      Nov 12, 2012 @ 23:10:52

      I appreciate that Susan. I’m sure the hospital thought I was a little weird rolling my video in a patient room like that but man, I wil cherish my dad’s stories forever. And pass them along to my nephew. I had no idea how closely linked you were to the UK! Maybe I should start calling Orion Sir Ludlow.


  6. Scott Morstad
    Nov 11, 2012 @ 15:40:45

    Anna your story moved me to send you a thinking of you and well wishes. Your father sounds like a fighter. My dad had a passion for Hawaii so much he went 2X a year and eventually bought into a time share so he could bring his family of which he did every year. Yes we were those in bright clothes and smiles. My father passed away in February from cancer of which was hard being the only child. Things happen for a reason as I was laid off from a company after 20 years and in that same week was told my father had 6 months to live. I was fortunate enough he lived in Seattle so was able to spend a lot of time with him and that was important to me as it is you. Sadly his brother my uncle passed away 6 months later from cancer and 4 weeks after he was diagnosed. Keep your father close and learn all you can as I hope his fight is surrounded by love. Take care!


    • annacanzano
      Nov 12, 2012 @ 23:07:14

      My goodness Scott! Im sorry to hear about your dad and uncle. Thank you for sharing. And I hope you get screened for whatever type of cancers ailed them.


  7. Brent
    Nov 11, 2012 @ 16:41:47

    Parkrose Broncos send our prayers and best wishes.


  8. Craig Rubio
    Nov 11, 2012 @ 17:57:24

    Anna, this is an amazing piece into your life and soul. I arrive in Honolulu On Wednesday afternoon. If you’re still there and can get away, I’d love to say hello. I’ll call you. Aloha. – Rubio


  9. Mary
    Nov 11, 2012 @ 18:38:41

    I can’t afford to fly to Hawaii but I’d be more than happy to go stay with them for a bit when you come back to work. I’m serious. (Retired principal, nice person.)


  10. William Fields
    Nov 12, 2012 @ 01:26:23

    Best wishes to you and your family.


  11. Michael Patrick
    Nov 12, 2012 @ 09:55:26

    Thank you for sharing your story. It will provide hope to others who are going through the same family challenges. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and what and a blessing that you are able to spend this time with your family.


  12. Julie Van Hee
    Nov 15, 2012 @ 14:47:10

    I am dealing with my Mom in Seattle, COPD, blood clots, infection, needs surgery only not well enought. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. Keep us posted.


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