Monday, March 4, 2013

Living through Cancer and Learning to Talk About It


Cameron Von St. James

My wife’s battle with cancer was hard on me, as her spouse and caregiver.  However, she has said on more than one occasion that she really has no idea what I must have gone through during this time. I hope that through this, I can give some more insight into what its like to be a caregiver for a loved one with cancer.

I remember seeing her cry when the doctor told her she’d been diagnosed with mesothelioma, and I remember wondering how we would make it through this. Heather had just given birth to our daughter, Lily, three months earlier. What was supposed to be the happiest, most joyful time in our lives quickly turned into one of the most fearful and stressful.

The biggest emotion I felt at first was anger. I was angry at the world for putting my family in this cruel and unfair situation. I was so angry that I was reduced to communicating with others through outbursts of profanity. I wasn’t happy with myself for doing that, and I really wanted to stop. However, it was easier said than done. I wasn’t able to be the rock that Heather needed until I got my anger under control, and realized how selfish I was being. I began to understand that the last thing my wife needed was to see just how scared I really was. Fortunately, I was able to get it under control and be the strong husband that she needed. From then on, I did my very best to be nothing but a source of hope and optimism for my family.

I did my best, but I was still overwhelmed because I had so much to do. On top of my job, I had to take care of my wife and daughter, our home and pets, and all of the travel arrangements we had to make for medical appointments and treatments. I learned quickly to prioritize and organize my to-do list, and to take it one item at a time.  I also learned to accept the help that our friends and family members were offering us. We were so blessed to have that kind of help and support in such a difficult time.

The worst part for me was the two month period I wasn’t with my wife and daughter. When Heather had her surgery in Boston, we sent Lily to Heather’s parent’s house in South Dakota. Heather needed time to recover following the operation, and she needed a full-time caregiver. I had to work, and we both knew I wasn’t able to do that and take care of her and Lily at the same time. We made the decision to send Heather to her parents’ house after her surgery, while I remained behind to work. I didn’t see them more than once in the entire two months they were away.

I did see them once, after I left work on a Friday night and made the 11-hour drive to my in-law’s house in the middle of a snowstorm.  I arrived, exhausted, on Saturday morning after having caught a few hours of sleep in the car while waiting for the plows to clear the roads. I spent one wonderful day with them, before I had to leave on Sunday to go back to work on Monday morning. It was short, but worth every minute of the difficult travel.

I learned a lot as a spouse and caregiver to a cancer patient. I learned that I have to accept help from time to time to make it through difficult situations, something that I was not very good at doing before this experience. I also learned to never regret any of the tough decisions that cancer forced us to make.  Rather, we learned to take comfort in the fact that we retained the ability to make choices at all, as they gave us some small amount of control over a situation which was almost completely beyond our control. Heather’s been healthy for more than six years now, despite the usually bleak prognosis for mesothelioma, and I can only hope that our story of triumph through tough times can be a source of hope and comfort to those currently battling cancer today.