On February 29, 2012, I was diagnosed with my second primary breast cancer. A good thing this “anniversary” will only come around once every four years. On Saturday, March 9, 2012, it will be exactly one year since I got that horrible phone call at work. The phone call that forever changed my life. That call was to inform me that they were suspicious that my cancer (from 10 years earlier) had spread to my bones and liver. And thus began my whirlwind year.
In looking back at my previous posts, I realize that I have been incredibly blessed to have so many wonderful people to walk this path beside me. Many don’t realize that cancer is not a solitary disease. Although it may devastate the person who is diagnosed, it also takes so much from those who love the diagnosed. Being a caretaker, loved one, friend, colleague, and even an acquaintance of someone diagnosed with cancer, is an experience itself. This really hit home for me about a month ago when I received a note from a stranger in response to one of my blog posts. He simply asked me to email him. Not knowing what to expect, I did. Come to find out that Cameron was a caretaker for his wife who was diagnosed seven years ago with a very rare and deadly form of cancer known as mesothelioma. Cameron wrote a “guest entry” and it is posted below. I learned a lot from Cameron and I hope you will too.
My Story as a Caregiver
I remember sitting with my wife in the doctor’s office not knowing what the doctor had to tell us. It was just three days before Thanksgiving. As we sat together, I remember thinking how lucky I was to have our newborn baby Lily, just three months old, and how we were going to celebrate so much that season. However, it would be just a few minutes later that I would learn why we were there at the doctor. My wife Heather had malignant pleural mesothelioma. This news shattered everything that we imagined our lives would be with our new family, and we began a long, difficult journey to beat cancer.
I sat so still, a bit captive in myself, all of the emotions in me building up as we listened to the doctor. Nothing was really getting through until I realized that we had to decide on treatment. He gave us some options that were closer to home. There was a regional hospital and a university hospital, neither of which had a developed program for this form of cancer. I knew that wasn’t going to be what Heather needed to survive. That’s when the doctor told us about Dr. David Sugarbaker in Boston, a renowned specialist known for his work with mesothelioma patients. I knew this man was the only one who could help my wife. “Get us to Boston!” were the next words out of my mouth.
The next few months were chaotic. I was working while trying to take care of a newborn and Heather. It was extremely difficult. I remember being stuck at work thinking of everything that I had to do and wondering how we would get through it all. We could barely pay for anything with the medical bills piling up. I couldn’t think about these things. I had to be a rock for my family, and keep my fears from taking over. I had to hold on to hope that the future for my family would improve.
As a caregiver, you sometimes forget that there are other people who can help you and provide some strength. Our family and friends began to do that for us. At first, it was difficult to accept help. I so badly wanted to be the one, the strong rock, taking care of my family, but it wasn’t about me. It was about helping my wife and doing what was right for us. We certainly couldn’t do it alone. Heather’s family provided some incredible support that I am so grateful for to this day. Without their help, we may not have survived.
My best advice for anyone going through this is to accept every offer of help. Even the smallest offering can be a huge weight off your shoulders, and at the very least will remind you that you are not alone in the fight. Allow yourself to have bad days, this is inevitable and even necessary sometimes, but the important thing is to never, ever give up hope for a better tomorrow.
Over the following months, Heather would undergo mesothelioma surgery, chemotherapy and radiation in order to fight this terrible disease. Despite the odds against her, at the end of it all she came out alive, healthy and cancer free. She remains that way to this day, over seven years after her diagnosis. We now hope that by sharing our story, we can help inspire others in their own cancer journeys, to never give up hope and always keep fighting for the ones they love.
What resonates the most with me, is his advice to accept every offer of help. Perhaps this is most important, especially for the primary caretakers. Even if caretaking is not necessarily physically demanding, I am sure that mentally and emotionally it is exhausting. So I would like to take a few minutes to personally thank a few people who took very good care of me or very good care of my caretakers.
First, is my husband. My rock. He bravely accepted my diagnosis and never once hesitated to take my hand and go on this frightening journey with me. He was there through it all. Every appointment, every doctor, every scan, every surgery, every recovery. I wish I could say that it’s behind us, but truth be told, there is probably much more ahead of us. I feel closer to Mark today, than the day we were married. He is a remarkable man. He still makes me feel special and beautiful despite the freak show of a body that I now inhabit. I do not know what I would do without him.
Next is my mother. The only thing I can think of that is worse than a cancer diagnosis, is my child receiving a cancer diagnosis. I hope I never have to go through what my mother has had to go through watching me. She too is a rock. She flew out the day after my devastating news. There wasn’t anything she could do to change the situation, but she brought a lot of comfort and support. She put her responsibilities and life on hold for two months for no other reason than “I wanted my mommy.”
Friends supported me in so many ways. Robin wrapped up one gift a day so that I could open a present after each radiation treatment. They were small tokens that made me smile and laugh. Carrie came bearing gifts shortly after my diagnosis as well. Books and chocolate……it doesn’t get much better. The Munhollands and Dwyers too brought me socks, books, and wine. My cousin, who I haven’t seen for years, Jenny…….sent me our grandmother’s rosary. I cried over that gift for hours as I was so touched. My aunt, Donna, also sent books and a very special pendant that had been blessed in France in a town known for miracles.
The gifts didn’t stop there. My mother and father in law were wonderful in the days following my diagnosis. They too put their lives on hold to be with my son so that Mark could be with me for appointments and for my surgery in May. My colleagues at work took up a collection of money to help pay my overwhelming medical bills in those initial months. Many covered classes so that I could leave early or come to school late in order to make it to an appointment. I received cards, emails, phone calls, and visits too numerous to count.
After surgery, for a solid month, there was a parade of homemade meals brought to me and my family everyday. My friends Sarah and Kyla organized this production and I can’t say thank you enough to everyone who participated. It made those first few weeks of recovery much easier on me and my family.
Even a year later, I continue to receive support in many different ways. Those who comment on my blogs, ask how I’m doing, send me emails and cards. It continues to brighten my days and ease my burden. One friend, JoAnn, never ceases to amaze me. She writes me messages that are so genuine and heartfelt, I rarely read one without crying. Not sad tears, but happy. She has a wonderful way with words.
I feel like I could go on and on. But the point of this incredibly long post is this: Accepting help is hard, but do it anyway. Lean on those that offer their support, I believe the people in my life are here for a reason and I am so lucky to have each and every one of them.
If you would like to read more about Cameron and his wife’s journey, go to http://www.mesothelioma.com/blog/authors/cameron/