My wife, Heather, was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma on November 21, 2005. Like all life threatening diagnoses, it came as an utter shock. Without knowing much about mesothelioma, we at least knew our lives together would never be the same.
Our daughter Lily was only three months old. I found myself having to be a new father and a new full time caregiver to my wife. The holidays were around the corner; that year was supposed to be our first Christmas as a family, normal and happy. But the year’s end brought only chaos to our lives.
At the doctor’s office when Heather was diagnosed, I immediately got a glimpse of what my new role as caregiver must be. Our doctor gave us a crash course on mesothelioma and recommended we see a specialist for treatment options. He offered us three choices: the local university hospital, a regional hospital with a stellar reputation but no mesothelioma program, or Dr. Sugarbaker, a mesothelioma specialist based in Boston.
I inventoried Heather’s face, waiting for her thoughts on our choices. She was silent, overwhelmed. She wore a look of absolute horror, the expression of surprised desolation you see on people standing amid rubble after tornadoes or hurricanes. “Get us to Boston,” I said to our doctor, speaking for both Heather and I. I could only pray that this doctor in Boston would be able to save my wife.
The next two months were like life inside a blender. All daily routines went out the window in lieu of more pressing, chaotic matters. Heather had to leave her full time job; I reduced my hours to part time in order to be there for her and Lily. My days were filled with doctor’s appointments, making travel arrangements, traveling to Boston, taking care of Lily and making sure Heather was comfortable.
My list of tasks was itself a cancer, ravenous, growing daily and threatening to consume all my energy. I was quickly becoming overwhelmed by my duties as a caregiver.
I feared Heather would die of cancer, we?d lose all our money and possessions fighting the disease, and I’d end up broke, a homeless father/widower. These were the times when I retreated to a private nook and balled my eyes out. I wanted it all to vanish: disease, stress, etc.
Luckily, there was no time to overindulge. Remembering everything I had to do, including being strong for Heather, always pulled me out of my funk. I dared not let Heather see my weaknesses. I was determined to be her rock, to be strong for her, all of the man she married.
We had help from family, thankfully. They were a blessing. So were friends and complete strangers. Monetary assistance and comforting words flowed toward Heather and I frequently. I don’t think I can ever fully repay all who helped us.
A word of advice to other caregivers who might read this: accept help whenever and however it’s offered. You are not alone, nor do you have to be. There are kind people who love you and want to support you. Call upon willing helpers and allow them to lighten your load. When you get the chance at a later date, pay it forward.
Being a caregiver is grueling, draining work. It’s chaotic and stressful and is easily the hardest task any of us may face in this lifetime. Unlike other jobs, you can’t quit. You have to try and avoid letting fear and anger take you hostage.
You’ll have bad days. In such circumstances, bad days are to be expected. They’re not the only kinds of days. You’ll have good days also. And those good days will feel like miracles, diamonds from heaven. Cling to these days and derive hope from them.
I learned many things during my time as a caregiver. Pride is useless; asking for help is wisdom in action, a sign of strength and not of weakness. No challenge is greater than hope itself.
I also learned the value of time/stress management. I put this knowledge to great use upon my return to college and the earning of my degree, some two years after Heather’s diagnosis. By that time, Heather had undergone surgery, radiation and mesothelioma chemotherapy.? Despite the enormous odds she faced, she managed to beat this terrible disease.? Today, over seven years later, she remains healthy and cancer free.
If fate decrees you become caregiver to an ill loved one, never stop fighting. The greatest victory is simply never giving up and learning you’re capable of grasping even those things beyond your imagination.