Living on a Thin Line

When Chris Nilhas learned he had cancer, his wife, Beckie, knew she might lose him. She didn't know she and their three young sons would also risk losing everything else.

From the looks of things, with the late-model Ford F-150 extended-cab pickup truck in the driveway, the Scooby-Doo flag flapping in the breeze out front and a gray cat waiting at the door, the still-life portrait of 720 Rockshire Dr. in Fenton on a late-August Tuesday morning is as normal as normal can get.

Inside, Dad sits in his rocking chair, watching TV. The kids are off at school, and Mom is on the couch. But the topic of conversation isn't the recent summer vacation or "did you see Junior's grades?" -- it's cancer. That's terminal cancer for 36-year-old Chris Nilhas. He has it and has been surviving with it for more than a year. The matter at hand is whether to seek a second opinion. Chris' oncologist stopped his chemotherapy two weeks ago, predicting his patient had only months to live. Chris' wife, Beckie, who has been grappling with past-due bills, medical insurance, doctor appointments and raising the couple's three young sons, sees his desire for another medical opinion as just another form of denial.

To an eavesdropper, the dialogue may seem harsh. Chris' cheeks are concave, sunken. The whites of his eyes have turned yellow as a result of jaundice caused by his failing liver. His abdomen is distended, as if he were five months pregnant, but what's inside him isn't life but the ravages of colon cancer that has spread to his liver, his lymph nodes and all points in between. He's sometimes short of breath. He rarely sleeps for more than an hour at a time. He can't stray far from a bathroom because bodily functions have become more urgent and less controllable. But even as the discussion deals with his demise, Chris seems peaceful, often reaching out with his socked foot to nudge Winnie, a furry white cat lying at his feet. Beckie, an energetic 34-year-old strawberry blonde, is leaning forward on the couch, making her points with slight exasperation because she knows she's made these points before and will again.

Chris worked as an $11-an-hour security guard at Station Casino before becoming ill.
Courtesy of Nihas family
Chris worked as an $11-an-hour security guard at Station Casino before becoming ill.

"You never wanted a second opinion, all along," says Beckie. "Now that Dr. Morris is giving you the final diagnosis that you didn't want to hear, now you want a second opinion."

"Sure," Chris says. "If it has to do with life and death, yes."

"But you have a terminal disease, and it's going to take your life anyway."

"Maybe. Odds are, yes. I understand that; I also understand that six months from now maybe they'll have something you can take so you can live with it -- it won't cure it, but maybe you can live with the disease."

Beckie has heard this hope before. Chris' cancer specialist, Dr. William Morris, works out of St. Anthony's Medical Center, but he has been in contact with specialists at St. Louis University Medical Center. Beckie believes that if any hopeful experimental approach to Chris' end-stage cancer existed, his doctor would already know. So this is one exercise in futility she's not willing to pursue, and she explains that to her husband of 12 years: "Dr. Morris called someone at SLU, gave him all the information, said, 'Is there anything experimental? Is there anything else we can try?' No."

"Not at this point," Chris says.

Beckie turns away from him. "That's not a second opinion, to Chris."

But Chris continues: "My brother's wife works at SLU, in some lab, working with mice and all that kind of stuff. She's one of them who said she'd get me the doctor's name and I could call him," he says. "It's just one of those things where I guess I'd feel better if another person said...."

It's time for Beckie to be blunt.

"Have I sat on the phone and said, 'Honey, you can't call'? No. You can call. You can go get your second opinion. I'm not going to go with you," Beckie says. "You can go get a second opinion -- I don't care, because I don't agree with it. You can go. I think you're going to get the same exact thing that Dr. Morris has given you."

The couple's discussion may sound as though it's lifted from a death-and-dying workshop based on the books of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross -- the patient not yet accepting what's happening to him, his spouse having to shine the light in his face. But this is no seminar. Chris and Beckie have been at this since April 2000, when Chris became the terminal mate and Beckie the caretaker spouse. For the last 16 months, Chris has been fighting the metaphysical foe of death with a positive outlook that usually includes a dose of denial, and Beckie has been fighting a rear-guard action against bill collectors, insurance companies and government agencies, each with its own cold frontman who isn't interested in sob stories.

They both knew that what they were facing would be a nightmare with no wakeup call, but somehow they thought the demon would be the disease, not the descent into a financial inferno where their shelter, their food and their independence are threatened. The premature mortality of a father with three young sons was tragic enough itself; Beckie and Chris had no idea that the rest of his dying would be so difficult.

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