The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twenty years ago, a cancer reprieve for my husband on one of the country’s most terrible days

Jenny Apostol and her husband, Marco DiPaul.
Jenny Apostol and her husband, Marco DiPaul. (Courtesy of Jenny Apostol)

We were late for my husband’s 9 a.m. appointment at the cancer center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and he had reason to feel nervous. For Marco, this bright mid-September morning in 2001 was the big day, his first checkup after nine months of a brutal regimen for esophageal cancer. We drove to Baltimore in silence, too agitated to listen to NPR. News was the last thing on my mind.

The looming question: Had the protocol worked? Radiation, chemotherapy and two abdominal surgeries offered no guarantees. The entire future of our young family, which included a 4-year-old son and his baby sister, depended on how today turned out.

In January 2001, Marco’s physicians had used the word “cure.” They didn’t strike me as people who exaggerate. Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus has a poor survival rate; it’s hard to detect; Marco had experienced trouble swallowing. “They want to save you,” I said after the meeting, to reassure myself as much as my husband.

Three years before we met, surgery plus a nuclear medicine treatment had eradicated my thyroid cancer. Only I knew the unbearable secret: Marco’s cancer was Stage 4. We were twins in a metastatic union and I hoped my favorable outcome would see my partner through.

The oncology clinic that morning was full of patients and caregivers, waiting for bloodwork and scans and to meet with their teams. Usually, no one talks much. But today, a group of people huddled around a man making an announcement: something about the World Trade Center in New York. A plane had just flown into it? What? How had he heard? Our cellphones didn’t work in the interior part of the hospital. I saw no television anywhere.

I’d grown up in New York and during fifth grade, my mother and I moved to a high-rise apartment building in Brooklyn across the river from Lower Manhattan. I’d watched the twin towers rise floor by floor in a stop-motion panorama that made up our view. Each sunset marked a new height etched into the skyline like the annual measure of my growth charted on our kitchen wall.

Those twin towers?

For a brief moment, we were suspended, floating in the bizarre time-lapse between the north and the south towers. Before we heard about the second plane and realized this was no accident. How improbable that two airplanes would strike a pair of buildings by coincidence.

Information leached out slowly. The State Department had been bombed, someone said. No, not State. The Pentagon. The Pentagon? No one moved from their seats. The greeter at the front desk discreetly placed a telephone call. Nurses continued to accompany patients into the clinic. When Marco’s name was called, he disappeared for vitals and an MRI.

I called home from the lobby. Our daughter and babysitter were fine. Our son’s school was sticking to regular dismissal and carpool. “The children are playing,” the secretary told me.

Marco met with his oncologist just like every previous checkup. They chatted about his appetite, his digestion, the U.S. Open tennis championship. She palpated the lymph nodes under his neck and arms, down his torso, and checked his scars for healing, while the three of us waited for the scan images to appear on her computer. Then they did.

“All clear,” the doctor declared with a grin. Marco’s body was free of tumors. When prompted by her stethoscope, he breathed an audible sigh. This compact woman with the soft, precise voice, who appeared in the same blue skirt and starchy lab coat each time we met, had successfully combined a lethal slurry of toxic elements to match my husband’s chemistry.

I was stunned. Was it over? I felt joy, of course, but had lived so firmly in the grip of denial that relief barely registered. Looking down toward the floor from the exam table, Marco started to weep. Then he thanked the doctor for saving his life.

We drove home, too overwhelmed by the day’s incongruous events to speak much. An electronic banner warned against entering Washington, D.C. Was a dirty bomb next? I couldn’t absorb what was happening. The love of my life and the father of my children was going to live. Marco held my hand as we drove down one of the busiest stretches of highway on the East Coast, the only car in sight.

We got home about 1 p.m. Our children were napping upstairs so we plopped down on the couch and turned on the television. For the first time, we saw the airplane sail into New York like a dart: The strike, the gash, the plume of black, the towers bucking under a cloud of ash as if swallowed from the ground up. Our babysitter murmured a prayer, then snapped off the television.

I spent the days that followed outdoors, seeking any pleasure that could match the relief felt inside my body. Sprays of helianthus dripped yellow pollen along the front gate. Our children took turns twirling on the rope swing, while I called friends to share Marco’s good news. Inevitably, conversation turned to the innocent lives abruptly cut down.

Why do some people survive while others perish? In New York on that bright Sept. 11 morning, some people had taken meetings away from their World Trade Center offices, missed an elevator or stayed home with a sick child. There were men and women at the Pentagon who crawled to safety near to where the fuselage evaporated on impact.

Yet the passengers and crew in a plane intended for the U.S. Capitol, who overpowered their hijackers near Johnstown, Pa., knew they never had a prayer. I’d overheard Marco’s oncologist give a patient news just as hopeless; she was sorry, there was nothing more to do. That patient knew, too, the terrifying inevitable that was coming.

All told, 2,977 people were killed on 9/11. In recent memory, only the death toll from the coronavirus has surpassed such a loss of life from one cause on a single day in the United States.

Marco returned to Hopkins every few months for the first two years, then annually for four more, until his chances of recurrence dropped to zero. He has been disease-free for 20 years. Since then, we’ve lost dear friends to cancers without cure, to accidents where there was no chance of rescue. Some of them were friends of our children.

As we hit the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it’s hard to fathom that the worst day for the country was one of the happiest for our family. We’re still married. Healthy. We’ve watched our children grow into compassionate, creative adults. I’ve never lost the awareness that a week’s delay in the start of treatment could have turned their father’s fate. A different protocol, a less innovative surgeon, a frailer body, cells that incubate destruction instead of new life.

Not everybody makes it to the survivor side of the graph. We’re humbled that we did, grateful for the automatic routines fueling any living body.

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