A few weeks ago, I was approached by a fellow health advocate who asked if he could share his experience about being a caregiver to someone with cancer on my blog. I've been very fortunate to have others help spread my story, so I was more than happy to dedicate a post to a different but also very scary disease: mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that is typically caused by exposure to asbestos. Cam's wife, Heather, was diagnosed with mesothelioma seven years ago. Doctors said she had only 3-12 months to live, but Heather is still alive today. I think it's important to show how cancer (or any disease) impacts not only patients but their caregivers as well. I hope you find inspiration in Cam's story.
Never Give Up Hope
By Cameron Von St. James
On November 21, 2005, my wife, Heather, received a devastating diagnosis: malignant pleural mesothelioma. We had just celebrated the birth of our daughter, Lily, just three months earlier. We thought we’d be happily celebrating her first Christmas together as a family. Instead, our lives became chaotic. I became a caregiver for a cancer patient, and my family started down a long and difficult journey to rid our lives of this disease.
My role as a caregiver started before we even left the doctor’s office. When the doctor gave us the diagnosis of mesothelioma, Heather was so shocked that she could not speak. He gave us the choice of a local university hospital, an excellent regional hospital that didn’t have a mesothelioma program, or Dr. David Sugarbaker, a mesothelioma specialist in Boston. My wife looked at me. Her eyes were pleading, “Oh God, please help me!” I made the decision for her: “Get us to Boston.”
Cancer threw our normal lives into complete chaos. Before the diagnosis, we both worked full time. Heather quickly became unable to work. I was only able to work part time, in order to care for her and Lily. Heather had to concentrate on fighting the cancer. I became the one who made all the doctor appointments, travel arrangements to and from Boston, working, and taking care of our baby full time. I was overwhelmed with all the work, terror that I would lose my wife, and concerns about how we would pay for all the treatments and travel without bankrupting our family.
Being a caregiver for someone diagnosed with cancer is difficult. You’ll experience emotional upheaval, uncertainty, and an unbearable amount of stress. It will likely be the most difficult test you’ll ever face. Unlike other difficult tasks, though, you can’t walk away. Just remember never to give up hope. You’ll need every resource you have to remain sane and navigate through each day.
Heather and I were blessed with help from friends, family, and even complete strangers. They helped us with everything from comforting words to financial assistance. One bit of advice I can offer to caregivers is that if someone offers you help, take them up on the offer. It’s one less thing to worry about. It also lets you know you’re not alone. There are people who care about you and can help lighten your load, don’t be too proud to let them.
It took years for our lives to return to normal. Heather went through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to fight mesothelioma. Despite the odds, she’s beaten this awful disease. Seven years after her diagnosis, she remains cancer-free.
The ordeal taught me that perseverance is an advantage and time is precious. Two years after Heather’s mesothelioma diagnosis, I had learned a lot about dealing with stress and juggling time commitments. I decided to fulfill a dream and go back to school to study Information Technology. I continued to work full time and care for my wife and then 2-year-old daughter. I graduated with high honors and was asked to be the commencement speaker. I told the graduating class that five years earlier, I would have never predicted that I would be on that stage giving that speech after all we’d been through with my wife’s cancer diagnosis. I urged them to believe in themselves, realize that they’re all capable of accomplishing far more than they could imagine, and never give up hope. Heather and Lily were in the audience to cheer me on, and that was the greatest reward of all.