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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Guest Post: Jumping Together into the Cancer Abyss

"Eternity, the idea of it, is a powerful magnet for the mind, but the heart remains unmoved. It is a truism to say that we are never more alive than when we are close to our deaths. (It is also at times, if said of one whose suffering has swamped his humanity, an obscenity.) Yet under the easy gesture toward this fatal intensity (easy so long as it is safely intellectual, remote from us) there is a sharp edge: it may take an illness for you to feel that edge, either in your body or in the body of one you love, or it might simply be a kind of cut in consciousness so sharp that there is a pause between you and all that is not you, and like a quick-handed cook whose deft slicing suddenly opens his own thumb, you are stuck in the shock of watching."

Christian Wiman
My Bright Abyss

During my cancer treatment last year, I was painfully aware that that my family was also along for the ride - the Frenchlings and my spouse. Whenever I asked the latter how he was doing, he always replied, "I'm not worried." Ahem. It was only after treatment was over that he confessed that he didn't sleep much the entire time, especially during the chemotherapy.

My spouse is a very private person and I would never ask him to contribute something to this blog. But not too long ago I was contacted by Cameron Von St. James whose wife was diagnosed with mesothelioma. They are dedicated to raising awareness about this form of cancer and write for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog. It's a very rare form of cancer but it's deadly - life expectancy after diagnosis is usually measured in months rather than years.

I was delighted by his offer to write a guest post for the Flophouse. This is a perspective I can't offer because I was the patient, not the caregiver and family member. My sincere thanks to Mr. Von St. James and I hope his post will give you an idea of what it's like for those who leap into the cancer abyss along with a loved one.

Lessons From an Unexpected Caregiver
Cameron Von St. James

A little over three months earlier, my wife Heather and I had celebrated the birth of our daughter Lily. On November 21, 2005, we were sitting in the doctor's office, listening as the doctor told us that Heather had malignant pleural mesothelioma, a particularly deadly form of cancer. In that moment, I had to take up the job of being a cancer patient's caregiver. Instead of celebrating the holiday season as any new family might, we were thrown into the chaos of treatment, fear and pain that those who suffer from health problems know too well.

My role as a caregiver began immediately, before we even left the doctor's office that day. The doctor gave us terrifying details about Heather's disease, and then he gave us options. Depending on our choice, Heather could pursue treatment at a local university hospital, at a good regional hospital that unfortunately lacked a mesothelioma program, or with Dr. David Sugarbaker, a well-known specialist in Boston. I sat back and expected Heather to aggressively ask questions and make her choice, but when I looked at her face, I knew that wasn't happening. At that moment, I knew that I had to step in. She was frozen with fear and shock, and I knew that she wasn't going to move forward without help. Immediately I turned to the doctor and told him we would be going to Boston. I could only hope that the specialist there would be able to save Heather’s life.

I still remember the next two months after that with something like dread. I went part time at work, and Heather quit entirely. She had an entire round of doctor's visits to attend to, and when I wasn't by her side or at work, I was consumed with talking with people in Boston, making travel arrangements and figuring out who was going to take care of Lily while we were traveling. The list of things to do just got longer and longer, and through it all, fear gnawed at me. I was afraid we were going to go through all of this pain, and Heather would still die. I would be left alone with Lily and a mountain of debt, and that thought broke me. I ended up on the kitchen floor just weeping, but I knew I had to be stronger than that. These moments of weakness came several times, but I never let them take hold over me. I got up, I made sure that Heather never saw me weak, and I remained her support and her rock through it all.

Our friends, family and even complete strangers stepped in to help us. They told us it would be okay, and they even offered financial assistance where they could. There is no way to repay these people who took us into their hearts, but I can definitely tell you that if you find yourself in this dark place, accept this kindness and help. This is something that needs to remind you that you are not alone and that there are people who can help you. They will help you lighten your load.

There is nothing easy about being a caregiver to someone who is diagnosed with cancer. Life is going to be very rough, and it will be full of fear and uncertainty. You can't walk away from it all or quit; you just have to keep on going, and some days, nothing feels tougher than that. At some points, you will feel like you are being overtaken with fear and anger. Accept the fact that some days, you will not be at your best, but never give up hope for a better tomorrow.

It took two years before things returned to something like a normal routine. Heather at this point had gone through mesothelioma surgery, radiation and chemotherapy to beat her cancer, and in the end, she emerged victorious. Now, seven years after her diagnosis, she is happy, healthy and cancer free.

For my part, I learned that my stubbornness is one of my greatest strengths and that you never know what tomorrow will bring. After seeing my wife through her cancer and caring for our young daughter, I decided that it was time for me to pursue my career in Information Technology.

Let me tell you, after balancing a young baby and a cancer treatment, I could handle anything that life threw at me. I ended up graduating with high honors and speaking at my own graduation. I don't know what life is going to throw our way next, but I do know that I can face it with strength and faith. To anyone else out there currently fighting a battle with cancer or any other disease – never give up hope, and always keep fighting for the ones you love.


Ellen Lebelle said...

Thank you! A wonderful post!

Catherine said...

My husband hardly ever dives into how he felt during my treatment, so I'm grateful for this post. Thank you for being so candid.

Shirl said...

Very nice, Victoria. Having been the caregiver in my husband's serious illness, from which he emerged victorious, and after which we said "We can do anything together," I identify.

It is a lot like being a passenger in a serious car accident. Not much you can do but be a cheerleader and try to take care of yourself. I had a good friend who said to me, when my husband was in L'Hopital Pitie Salpetriere for a month, "You are in the most beautiful city in the world. Go out and see something."

:) Great post.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Cecile, What's interesting in a situation like this is how all those problems disappear. The one big stress kills all the other little ones and you have a strange sort of focus and peace as a result. Not that I would recommend it, mind you. :-)

@Catherine, I had the same experience and some days it made me crazy because I could sense there was a lot of emotion there. Cameron did a wonderful job of opening the door and giving us a glimpse.

@Shirl, I love that analogy. How is the new house?