In this guest submission, author Cameron Von St. James tells his inspirational story of suddenly becoming a caregiver for his wife, Heather, after her diagnosis with malignant pleural mesothelioma. Through their blogs on caregiving and cancer and their advocacy for mesothelioma research, Cameron and Heather have turned a painful ordeal into a force for good.
November 21, 2005 was one of the toughest days of my life. It was the day that my wife, Heather was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. That day, my role changed from husband, to caregiver of someone with cancer. It was role I never expected to take and an undertaking I was not prepared to handle. It was an interesting time in our lives. Just three months before my wife received her life changing diagnosis, we welcomed the arrival of our only child, Lily. This was a time in our lives that was supposed to be happy and exciting. However, right before Lily’s first Christmas, our lives were turned upside down.
The reality of becoming a caregiver hit me before we even left the doctor’s office. We were told about this form of cancer and informed that we needed to consult a specialist to discuss Heather’s treatment options. We were given three choices. We could visit our local university hospital, schedule an appointment at the regional hospital or visit a mesothelioma specialist in Boston. Heather just sat there with a blank stare, not expressing an opinion. She was still in shock at her diagnosis. I looked at Heather and without thought told the doctor we wanted to speak with Dr. David Sugarbaker, the specialist in Boston. I could only pray that he would save my wife.
The two months following the diagnosis were hectic. Our lives were turned upside down. Before the diagnosis, Heather and I held full-time jobs. After the diagnosis, Heather no longer worked and I only worked part time. I divided my time between working and spending time with Heather at her doctor’s appointments. My free time was now filled with making travel arrangements, trips to Boston and taking care of Lily. It was not too long before I became completely overwhelmed with our situation. On top of the physical and financial strain, I was feeling it emotionally. I would often think about what would happen if Heather did not beat the cancer. I wondered if I would spend our savings fighting this disease only to see us lose the battle. I feared my daughter and I being homeless and without Heather. The thought kept me up at night, crying in the kitchen. I just wanted this to end. Luckily, I was able to refocus and do what needed to be done. When I felt overcome with emotion, I made it a point to not let Heather see me in that condition. She needed support and I needed to be there for her.
Despite all the scariness that was going on in our lives, Heather and I were lucky. We had a large system of family, friends and even strangers to help us. We were able to get a lot of emotional and financial assistance from people who cared. If there is any advice that I can give to someone who was diagnosed with a serious illness and those that care for them, it is that you do not have to deal with this alone. Allow people who are willing to help you to do so. Even the smallest amount of assistance makes a tremendous impact on the burden you face.
It is hard to be a caregiver to a person that is diagnosed with a serious disease. You will experience a lot of stress and deal with uncertain situations. This will be one of the most difficult periods of your life and it is something you cannot give up on. It is important that you do not succumb to your fears or become paralyzed with anger. However, do not beat yourself up for having a bad day. The circumstances are tough and bad days are inevitable, but do not give up.
It was several years before our lives normalized after Heather’s cancer. She had undergone radiation, surgery and chemotherapy in her fight to save her life. It was a long battle but she beat the odds and survived.
Caring for Heather during her battle with cancer taught me a lot. I realized that asking for assistance is not a sign of weakness. I also learned that there is not any obstacle that cannot be overcome if you have hope and optimism. During this time, I improved my time management skills and ability to handle stress. Two years after my wife’s diagnosis, these new skills allowed me to go back to school to earn my college degree. If you ever find yourself having to care for a loved one, do not give up. The situation may seem daunting, but it is one you are capable of handling.