Talking With Kelly Corrigan

The author of The Middle Place reflects on how family dynamics, faith, and lacrosse figured into her father's treatment for bladder cancer.

How do you deal it when your father who has been diagnosed with cancer picks a doctor based on his mutual love for lacrosse? Or when your parents decide to go to church instead for a second medical opinion? In her touching and surprisingly humorous memoir The Middle Place, a New York Times bestseller, Kelly Corrigan recounts how she handled parental caregiving and sibling dynamics while dealing with her own complicated health issues: At the age of 36, she was already in treatment for breast cancer when her father's cancer was diagnosed.

The life situation that Corrigan calls the "middle place" may feel familiar to many new caregivers -- that sliver of time when childhood and parenthood overlap -- before a parent's illness hurls you into full-fledged adulthood and the realization of your parents' mortality as well as your own. Corrigan was doubly frustrated because she was bound to her home in the Bay Area by her own chemotherapy regimen and unable to get to her father, George Corrigan, known as "Greenie" -- a devout Catholic, onetime All-American lacrosse player, and eternal optimist.

In the book, Kelly -- whom her father calls "Lovey" -- often verges on hysteria as she trolls sites like the Bladder Cancer Web Cafe, cleans the scum from her daughters' sippy cups, and urges her brothers to get their father seen at Johns Hopkins while Greenie and her mother, Mary, put their faith in God and the doctors in their Philadelphia suburb. After she plays the cancer card once too often to assert her long-distance authority in the family, one of her brothers blurts into the phone, "You're too intense."

George Corrigan's cancer relapsed a year after it went into remission, he received another round of treatment, and he has had no signs of cancer since. Kelly Corrigan has remained cancer free, but her experience as a caregiver continues.

Q: How did you and your family members initially respond to your father's diagnosis?

A: My mom just wanted to go to church and she didn't want to talk about it -- she wanted to defer to the doctors. My father was the same way: "It's going to be fine, Lovey." A lot of optimism, a lot of church, and a lot of deferential treatment.

Then our generation is so different. My brother Booker just wanted assignments: "You tell me what to do and I'll do it." My other brother's strategy -- which I think is a pretty good strategy, actually -- was to use his personal network to figure out how other people had dealt with it, what kind of treatment they had had, what life with "bags" is like. In our case, if they removed my dad's bladder, he would have had two bags. And GT was discovering that there are people [with bags] who are playing tennis. So his strategy was to network to get a sense of what was coming.

My strategy was to drive the treatment discussion -- to make sure there was a second opinion, to make sure we were going to the very best place within driving distance of our parents' house, to make sure they were asking the right questions and taking notes, and that kind of thing. I was emailing doctors directly; I was looking things up on the Internet, and cutting and pasting huge sections of questions about TNM [tumor, node, metastasis] staging and where exactly it was in the ureter -- you know, almost talking over my head.

Q: How much was your response driven by the fact that you were going through cancer treatment at that time?

A: I had just finished my seventh round of chemo, and the chemo was working. So I had a lot of conviction around the idea that medicine will save you and that in order to get the right medicine, you had to get the right doctor. But that's not all there is to it. It's a mystery sometimes why things turn out the way they do, and any doctor worth his salt will tell you there are things they don't understand and can't predict, and that they're often baffled or wrong. So if my parents want to go to church and pray, who am I to tell them it's nonsense?

Q: But had your parents handled it only that way -- by going to church -- and had your father not pulled through, would you have felt guilty or would you have been able to accept it because it was their choice?

A: I don't think I would have felt guilty; I would have been furious. I remember thinking, how can I trust my parents with my father's life? But it was my father's life and my mother's husband's life and GT's father's life, and Booker's father's life. At that moment, though, I felt like I would have done anything to make what I was afraid would happen not happen. It's more psychologically comfortable to be angry than it is to be sad, so I probably would have preferred anger to mourning.

Q: Your father's love of lacrosse also played a part in his treatment choices, which frustrated you.

A: In my dad's life, it's been the case that personal relationships solve everything. So he had a personal relationship with [his local urologist], the guy loved lacrosse, and the guy's kid played for my dad -- my dad is a lacrosse coach. My dad just said, "Trust me, Lovey, this guy's gonna take good care of me. He's a lacrosse fanatic, we speak the same language." And that was not a satisfying answer for me.

What he meant, which is kind of legitimate, was, "I'm a very special patient to this guy." I sought that out myself when I was sick. I really wanted the same nurse every time because I knew we had a connection, I knew she was going to check the bag twice and make sure she was giving me the right medicine. And I believe that connections lead to good care. So on one level, I knew he was right. But on the other level, they just have better equipment at Johns Hopkins. I said, "The machine that they're going to use to scan you is newer and better than the machine at Bryn Mawr oncology. It's just 90 minutes away -- let's use it!

Q: And you finally were able to convince your parents of that.

A: We all prevailed, the three of us. And, of course, lacrosse played into it again. When my father first got diagnosed, I went online and found a book on bladder cancer written by [Johns Hopkins' director of urologic oncology] Mark Schoenberg. So I emailed my family and said, "This is the guy. We've got to get in to see him. "And then my brother GT said, "Schoenberg -- I think that his little brother played lacrosse with me at Washington and Lee." And he did. So GT called Schoenberg and the little brother, and then he remembered that Jerry Schnydman, who also worked at Hopkins, was a lacrosse guy, and he called him too. So once again, personal networking -- primarily born of lacrosse -- led us to the answer. So we all came out of it completely validated in our own positions.

Q: And in the end, there was kind of a synergy to your different approaches.

A: Yeah, ultimately it was good teamwork. But it felt a little crazy and stressful and out of control at the time.

Q: So what was the main thing you wish you had known during this experience?

A: There are two things, and they're two sides of the same coin. I think there's this temptation -- at least for me there was -- to feel like I was going to rally the troops and drive it across the finish line, and that wasn't necessarily what was helpful to each and every member of my family. You need to be careful and respectful of the other people who are dealing with this news at the same time. Everyone is going to respond differently and approach treatment differently. So people instantly slip into these roles, and I think that you can feel a sense of superiority, like your way of dealing with it is the right way and the people who aren't on your team better get on your team.

The flip side is: Everyone needs to be super-forgiving because basically you're in a crisis, and there's just no sense in wasting a whole bunch of energy getting frustrated or angry at everybody in your family for responding as they're responding. So tread lightly, take a deep breath, and talk to people first -- have some consideration for the other people to whom this is happening.

Q: How did you realize that your approach wasn't working for the others?

A: I sent an email to the doctors and my dad called and said, "Lovey, you gotta take it easy on these guys." And I thought, oh my God, I don't want to do anything to alienate these guys. Here I am trying to make them fans of George Corrigan so they'll take his case and worry about him the way that I'm worrying about him, and I might be doing the exact opposite! My squeaky wheel routine may actually be alienating them.

Q: What was the email about?

A: I was pressing them for information about his TNM staging. They had been talking to us in broad generalities and I really wanted the information because I knew from a website what the implications were of various TNM stages. So I really wanted them to give up the number because I wanted to know how serious it was. But a little bit of information is a dangerous thing, and I think I attached more weight to the TNM staging than was actually relevant to his case. There were other factors that were much more important. So [the doctors' attitude] was: "Sure, we'll tell you the TNM staging, but you're not going to know what to do with the information. You think you know, but you don't. In this case, there are bigger problems here."

Q: This experience thrust you face-to-face with your father's mortality and your own. How have you dealt with that?

A: It's not a bad thing to be in touch with mortality. It's not a bad thing to realize every day that your own mortality is not guaranteed, nor is the mortality of your parents. So to the extent that it is weighing on you, you might as well use it to plan your days and make choices.

I fly more. I fly all the time. It's a big pain, it hurts my back, it costs a lot of money, you have all that pre-travel stress, but I'm doing it because it's so clear to me that my days with my parents are numbered. It's so clear to me that this whole thing could just disappear, and I don't want to have any regrets. I call them all the time now, even if I don't have anything to say, even if we have a two-minute boring conversation. I want to hear those voices.


over 3 years, said... sorry to hear about your Dad.. He was a great friend. I called him a teammate for life and he loved it. Please know he is in our prayers. Please relay our thoughts to GT and Booker.. Never heard a word from Mary.. Tried to call but never heard back..Bob and Carolyn Fitzsimmons(Fitz)