Family talks about feelings, challenges following teacher’s cancer diagnosis
Editor’s note: This is the fourth part of an occasional series on Dianne Young, the Bolton High School yearbook sponsor who learned in April that she has a rare form of brain cancer.
“What’s today’s date?” asked Robert Young, as he reached for a calendar on a side table near his living room sofa. “Aug. 25. So, 18 years, five months, four days. I have to get this right. We both celebrated our anniversary on the wrong day!”
His wife, Dianne, was sitting across from him laughing the whole time.
“It’s true,” she said.
“But this is a very strong marriage,” said Robert. “There’s no way out. I might have to sleep in the barn some day, but there’s no out.”
It was a light moment in a conversation about events that might tear some couples apart. The Youngs don’t take anything for granted since Dianne was diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme in April. With two young children, a small farmette in Rosemark and just two teacher’s salaries to pay for the out-of-pocket medical expenses, the couple enjoys moments where they can find things to laugh about.
Such as the case when Robert chose to use their morning coffee routine to demonstrate what makes a good marriage.
“I like Folgers instant coffee,” he said. “She likes brewed coffee, usually Folgers, and hazelnut cream. I don’t like hazelnut cream. So, we compromise.
“I no longer drink coffee and she gets to drink all the hazelnut cream she wants.”
These days, the Youngs are finding more reasons to laugh and celebrate.
After the initial diagnosis in April, no one knew what to expect. Robert was still substitute teaching. Dianne, a 12th-grade literature teacher and yearbook sponsor at Bolton High School, couldn’t finish her school year. And with four malignant tumors in her brain, Dianne’s prognosis for an illness that has a small survival rate seemed grim.
But now, Dianne is into her fourth week back to school. Robert is teaching economics and world history full-time at Whitehaven High School. The tumors were all either much smaller or undetectable in an MRI in July. And life, they say, is more normal again.
The Youngs took time over the weekend to show their homestead. Dianne proudly revealed the mostly completed kitchen, where the dads of the local Boy Scouts helped to install new kitchen cabinets. The family then led their guest out the back door and across a large yard to their weather-beaten barn where the family horse, Skip, calls his home. Along the way, their golden retriever, Jester (who Robert likes to refer to as ‘Pester’) wagged his tail and jumped on his human companions. Chickens, including one the boys have named Gimpy because of a shorter leg, grazed a low-trimmed, mostly flat meadow. And the boys climbed over farm fences, showed off their new kittens and demonstrated a homemade rope slide leading from a black walnut tree to the family’s back deck.
“We bought this place because of the place, not because of the house,” said Dianne, who gracefully dismissed compliments on their home, where southern flower beds with sprouting lantana hug a country driveway covered in pecans out front.
These are the things that the family says makes them forget their troubles. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their moments of frustration.
“I’m just waiting for it to be over,” said Robert. “They said the short-term memory (following the radiation) would be back in three months, and it’s not. They said the hair would be back -- the hair isn’t as important. I’m just ready for it to move on.
“It’s hard,” he said.
For Robert and their family friends, it’s also been nearly non-stop. Dianne hasn’t been able to drive since she first found out she was sick. That means extra time is needed to coordinate getting her to and from multiple doctor’s appointments, getting their kids to after-school activities and getting every day errands run. Much of this falls on Robert, who, with his new job, already has a 70-mile commute every day.
“I never get to watch TV -- Dianne says I watch too much TV anyway -- but I’m lucky if I get to watch an hour of TV per day,” he said.
They also try to keep things as normal for their sons as possible. Robert and their youngest -- Justin, 10 -- just returned from a Cub Scouts camping trip over the weekend.
“He’s still burning the candle at both ends,” said Dianne about Robert.
Still, the kids see things different than they first did when their mom got sick.
“I know she was diagnosed on April 1, but she waited to tell me until the week of my birthday,” said Justin, who turned double-digits on April 17. “And then they did the biopsy. There were two kinds, a good kind and a bad kind, and it was the bad kind.
“And then she looked online, and saw that it said she had three months to live. And that was all the way in April, and it’s been -- April, May, June, July, August -- five months.”
Dianne had said that Justin has known from the beginning that something serious was wrong. But he hasn’t been able to process it as well as their older son, Jake, who’s 12.
“Mom told me that if something happened between her and dad, that I had to choose someone, and it had to be a relative,” he said. “I chose one of my aunts. And when she first said ‘I have a brain tumor, and it might kill me,’ I thought, am I really going to have to go down to Arizona?
“That would be a huge change for me,” he said. “And I was scared that there would be too many changes going on.”
But Jake said when he first heard, he was “shocked.
“I didn’t really cry because I didn’t really know if was brain cancer, or if it really was a brain tumor yet.”
Jake, who said he had plenty of people to talk to about it when they first found out but few questions, and had less to say recently than his brother, said he’s sure his mom is going to get better.
But she’s not exactly the same mom, he said.
“She’s more strict,” attributing that to her stress “and the medicine probably.”
And, he said, “she looks the same other than the hair.”
It’s a family trait among the Youngs to believe that, in the end, Dianne will be cured. She has said herself from the beginning that she will beat this cancer. Her husband said he agrees.
“I know she’s going to get better,” said Robert. “There’s just no doubt.”
How much she’s improved will become more clear on Sept. 5. That’s when Dianne will have another scan. Her doctors will compare those results to the scan she had July 1 and determine at that time how they will adjust her course of treatment.
Meanwhile, the family all agrees that the hardest thing for them has been asking for help. But Robert said he got some good advice from a friend.
“One of the guys I went to college with, this last time when I went back to be a teacher, he lost his wife to leukemia,” said Robert. “And we got to talking about it one day, and he said right off the bat that when people offer to help, give them something to do; give them something to do. Let them help.”