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Happy Together, Couple Faces Cancer's Uncertain Road

Article date: February 20, 2002

Father Mack Skaggs

"This cancer thing can destroy a marriage, or it can be the glue that sets and holds it together forever."


Dreams, Faith, and Attitude Sustain Both

"My boss is very angry with me," Mack Skaggs, then a chemical and environmental engineer, told his wife, Amy. "He said I fell asleep in a meeting. It was an important presentation to a client. He's talking with the higher-ups and I'll probably be fired."

Amy said, "I knew that was not a possibility for my very brilliant, alert, and energetic husband." She said his "sense of responsibility far surpassed that of any one else I knew."

So, she called their doctor, who agreed to see him first thing the next day. “Your hemoglobin is so low, it's a wonder you can even sit up, let alone stand," the doctor said. "I'm sending you to a gastroenterologist."

"That was October or November 1992," said Skaggs, who is now the Reverend Father Mack Skaggs, or "Father Mack." Skaggs was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at the juncture of the stomach and the esophagus.

After an endoscopy and biopsies, he was scheduled for surgery early on the morning of Jan. 21, 1993, at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"Our first visit to the hospital was very frightening and very regimented," Amy said. They were assigned to a worker who escorted them everywhere.

Skaggs' surgery (11 and one-half hours) was long and difficult. His doctors made a cut in his abdomen and removed large parts of his esophagus and stomach.

The prognosis isn't good, the doctor told them. About 85% of patients leave the hospital within three months. A few (about 1%) survive a year.

"Well, I've done as much as I can for him," said the doctor. "The rest is up to God."

Smiling in the Face of Adversity

"The staff at M.D. Anderson was superb," Amy said. "(They) were able to help us to maintain our faith and positive attitude, even at times when it looked as if there were no hope at all.

"The warmth and love of the volunteers at the Cancer Center are indispensable," she said. "You just can't make it without the volunteers. There's always someone who will come up to you, and without a word, give you a hug. Without all of these people and their efforts — there would be no possibility of the miracles and the good things that have happened in our lives."

Amy continued, "Nights when he couldn't sleep, the nurses 'partied' in his room. Of course, they were actually giving us something else to think about and talk about. They injected (no pun intended) a note of fun into a troublesome time." And they cared so much, she said.

After the surgery, though, "we were on a roller coaster of terrible to worse," she said. Skaggs was in intensive care for days, and in the hospital for weeks. When they sent him home, they wanted him to rest, but he was still very, very sick, Amy said.

At home, he was in a hospital bed and had a visiting nurse. Though the nurse first taught Amy how to care for Mack, she stopped doing anything. "She sat back and watched me do all the nursing chores. I thought she was there to help, but we sent her packing quite quickly. Then we were all alone."

One thing that sustained Amy was the words of one of Skaggs' doctors. "When a member of a couple has cancer, we can take care of the patient's pain, but there is nothing we can do about the mate’s pain. Only God can do that."

She said Mack talks to God all of the time, and "I've developed an affinity with God, myself!"

“I think your recovery is due to your faith, your positive attitude and a strong support companion," said Amy. "The key is, we can't both be depressed at the same time."

The bills came in, and they added up, Amy said. The Skaggs decided living in Houston was too expensive, so they moved to Canyon Lake, about 150 miles away.

At the time, Amy said, it was a nice resort area, and their daughter lived there with her family. "We could never have managed without their support and love," she said. "For two years, we made frequent trips to the hospital, had one return to surgery, and just lived."

Miracles are Never Rationed

Father David, a chaplain they visited with, told Amy that this cancer would advance. "He asked me what I would do then, for we had already had our miracle," Amy said. "What a thing for a chaplain to say! I'm sure he wasn't thinking, for I've never read that miracles are rationed."

This same chaplain appeared at Mack's bedside one night during a life-threatening emergency. He told Amy and the doctors and nurses in Mack's room that he'd felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake.

Father David said he felt that Skaggs needed him, so he put on his clothes and drove to the hospital. While he was reading Mack his last rites, Mack regained consciousness.

"Our lives consisted mostly of monotonous routine, but we did have our faith in our God and my dear husband’s incredible positive attitude," she said. "We decided that there was work for him to do and we needed to get him well so he could do it." They still make many trips to Houston for checkups.

"One morning, Mack woke me and asked if I would mind if he went to seminary. 'Seminary?' I said, 'What an undertaking!' Okay, if that was what he wanted, we would go to seminary. After three years he was ordained a priest — and was overjoyed."

"You have to have your dreams," she said. Skaggs became the resident chaplain at Methodist Hospital, working a couple of days a week.

"He was ideally suited for this," Amy said. "When people would say to him, 'How do you know? You've never been where I am,' he could speak with credibility. It did make a difference.

"It's always been an uphill fight — so many side effects and additional problems. There have been nights when he coughed all night long. His ankles swell. He's been left with a temperature-sensing problem and extremely high blood pressure.

"However, we still are married and still in love," Amy said. "We glory in being close to each other."

She said their elevated bed makes it tough for her to sleep. "But to Mack, at least for now, the idea of separate beds is not an option."

The road ahead is uncertain. "We have many scares — periods of intense worry and fear," she said. "But so far, most of the problems have been manageable — not always easy, but possible."

Amy talked about the financial impact cancer has had on their lives. Even though they have insurance coverage, their lives have changed drastically since Mack's diagnosis. The cost of medications has skyrocketed, Amy said.

"Mack was an engineer, he made a good salary. We did what we wanted when we wanted. We went wherever we wanted. We both drove Cadillacs," she said. But, she says, since then they've faced times when they had to choose between buying medication or food.

To make a little extra money, Skaggs and Amy started traveling to craft shows. They make and sell candles and t-shirts, which help pay for Skaggs' medications. Even though sales have gone down since the events of Sept. 11, they enjoy that they are doing something together, she said.

"It's important that we are together to support each other and reinforce our love," Amy said.

"This cancer thing can destroy a marriage, or it can be the glue that sets and holds it together forever," she said. "We are a team. We have so very much to be grateful for."

"On January 21, 2002, we reached the nine-year milestone," she said. "That is a miracle!"