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Cancer patient struggles with life after seeming cure

Maria Fabrizio for STAT

It was June of 2016 and the students would soon leave Hyde School for good, and so they gathered in the old mansion of the school in Bath, Maine, on a rainy night with their classmates and teachers for a tradition known as “the cards are dealt.”

One by one their time came and they stood and spoke of their parents’ divorce or a physical setback or a parent’s death, and then explained how they’d played those cards. The ritual calls for them to recognize resilience, to see shelters they’ve already built against adulthood’s storms.

At the edge of the group sat a 43-year-old teacher who’d been dealt the worst card. Days before, doctors told Lisa Geller they could no longer treat her endometrial cancer, which had spread with stunning pace. Her supervisor asked if she’d like to address the kids. She spoke last.

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“I remember saying — it was really difficult for me — but I felt like my light was not ready to go out. And I don’t think that was bulls-t. I don’t think that was me sitting in front of 17- and 18-year-olds trying to make them feel better.”

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Weeks later, Geller was in her parents’ bed in Wellesley with sunlight through the window and the sound of children in the ballfields out back, and she had nothing left. Geller curled one hand around her mother’s hand. “I want to be buried where Nana is,” she told her parents. And she told them of her regrets: of never experiencing true love, or career pinnacles or financial security — milestones her peers had achieved in the years she was trying to stay alive.

And now it is a year later, and Geller sits at the big window of a Boston cafe with her coffee and pastry, with people stopping in from yoga and shopping, oblivious to the miracle in their midst. She is brightly dressed with blond-tinted hair and colorful glasses. She could pass for 30.

About that miracle (even her doctors called it that): “It sounds so cliché, but it was like pouring water on a dead plant and it comes back to life.”

Not long after the day in her parents’ bed, Geller’s doctor prescribed a long-shot immunotherapy drug that wasn’t yet approved for her particular cancer, but that has shown some promise in other tumor types. Within two weeks her pain had subsided and her tumors had started melting away, and by the autumn her cancer was gone. And now she is wondering what comes next.

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“I feel stalled, I guess you’d say. We’re all supposed to be married and in a committed relationship and buy a house and achieve professional success, and that all sort of happens during the seven-year span I’ve been in treatment.

“I’m not in crisis anymore, but now I’m faced with dealing with my real issues, missing those milestones.”

Considerable obstacles remain. She revisits the trauma of her near-death experience, and confronts the physical damage and scars that remain. She lives in constant fear, fueled by immunotherapy’s short history, that her cancer will return.

Because of these new drugs, cancer and palliative care specialists are seeing more people who were dying and then suddenly were not. Some of them never feel the weight of that process, and they lift an eyebrow at those who express anything but gratitude for a second chance.

But for those like Geller, stranded in the liminal state between dying and living, the story is more complicated than perhaps we like our miracles to be.

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She’s trying to craft a social life around her adopted hometown of Bath, Maine, despite her need to sleep sometimes 15 hours a night because of immunotherapy side effects. She’s back to teaching, but is dialing back her expectations for completing 50-hour workweeks.

Even with a counselor to help her weave her anger and gratitude into something more manageable, it is a steep challenge.

“There’s part of me that feels like I have to say something that I’m struggling with, for people to understand that my normal is a lot different than their normal. And I really struggle with that — with wanting to say, ‘I just want to tell you I’m . . . angry and I’m sad because of the lost time.’”

But she doesn’t.

Instead she meets her 75 students where they are and then sleeps through the night, and she writes and knits and goes for coffee and drops subtle clues to those around her that she is not who she appears to be. She is someone in waiting: waiting for the next card to be dealt, hoping it is one that might deliver her into the complication of a normal life.