November 21, 2005 is a day I will never forget. Not only was my wife Heather diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, but it was also the day I became her caregiver through her journey to beat cancer. Our daughter Lily had been born less than four months before Heather’s diagnosis, and our once bright and exciting future now looked bleak and uncertain.
As we sat in the doctor’s office that day and our treatment options were laid out for us, I looked over at my wife to see her decision, and I realized that she was too shocked and terrified to go forward.
I was terrified by everything in those days. I thought my wife was going to die, that her treatment would eat up all of our money and that I would end up a widower with a baby daughter to care for. I ended up crying my eyes out on the kitchen floor more than once. I had bad days, this was inevitable, but I always made sure to hide these moments of weakness from Heather. She needed me to be strong for her, and that’s exactly what I was going to be.
It is difficult to be a caregiver to someone with a serious disease. Your life gets eaten up with stress and uncertainty, and it may be toughest thing you ever go through. You can’t quit, and you can’t walk away. You have to allow yourself to have bad days, but always hold on to hope, and never give in to fear and despair.
It took years before we were able to return to a normal routine. Heather underwent an invasive procedure called an extrapleural pneumonectomy, along with chemotherapy and radiation. Despite the overwhelming odds against her, she came out on top, and seven years after her diagnosis, she is cancer free.
This cancer ordeal has taught me a lot. One of the most important things that it has taught me is that there is a place for my type of stubbornness in the world. I realized that after things had calmed down somewhat, I had what it took to go back to school. My experience as a caregiver gave me the stress and time management skills that I needed to succeed at school. More importantly, it gave me the courage to pursue this dream of mine.
When Lily was two, I went back to school full time. After a lot of hard work, I graduated with honors and was selected to speak at my graduation ceremony. Just a few years before, sitting in a doctor’s office and being told that my wife might die from cancer, I never would have imagined I would come so far. I told my fellow graduates that by holding on to hope and believing in ourselves, we can accomplish incredible things in the face of enormous odds. Heather and Lily were in the audience, cheering me on, and that was the greatest reward of all. Facing cancer will likely be the most difficult challenge you’ll ever face, but it might teach you a few things along the way. Never give up hope, and never stop fighting for the ones you love.
**This post is from guest blogger Cameron Von St. James. If you need guidance on how to be a caregiver, call our 24-hour lifeline for more information. 1-800-255-5505