Whether we are caring for an aging parent, child or ailing spouse many of the challenges of caregiving are the same. I would like to share one caregivers story. Cameron Von St. James was thrust fully into the role of caregiver when shortly after the birth of his first child his wife was diagnosed with cancer. What he felt and learned during his caregiving experiences are described here in his own words.
My wife Heather and I welcomed our first and only child, Lily, into the world in August of 2005. It was supposed to be a happy time for us, but just three months later our lives would take a turn for the worse. The holidays were approaching, and we were preparing to celebrate Lily’s first Christmas. Instead, our lives were thrown into chaos when my wife, Heather, was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma cancer. It was also the day I would begin my new role as a caregiver.
Before we left the doctor’s office that day, I was thrust, unprepared, into my new position as a caregiver. The doctor talked about mesothelioma and treatment options. We were told we could either go to the local hospital, a regional hospital that was highly respected but had no mesothelioma program, or to Dr. David Sugarbaker, a doctor in Boston who specializes in this type of cancer. My wife sat in silence and disbelief. I was hoping she would choose an option. “Oh, God, please help me!” was the look of desperation I saw on her face. I knew I had to be strong for her. I made my first decision as a caregiver when I looked at the doctor and said, “Get us to Boston!” I didn’t realize it then, but it was only the first of many decisions I would make after Heather’s diagnosis.
Chaos replaced our normal life. Before her cancer diagnosis, we both worked full time. Now, she wasn’t able to work, and I was working part time and adjusting to being a caregiver. My days were filled with taking Heather to doctor’s appointments, making travel arrangements for the trips to Boston, and taking care of Lily.
I felt overwhelmed by the growing list of things that needed done. Emotionally I was a wreck. I worried about losing my wife. I wondered if we would lose everything fighting the cancer. I feared I would become a homeless widower with a young daughter to care for. Fear consumed me. I would find myself on the kitchen floor bawling in despair. I wanted this to go away. I was thankful these feelings didn’t last long. I had to be strong. I knew I needed to be the one Heather could lean on. I was careful not to let her see me during my times of distress.
Offers of financial assistance and words of comfort were numerous from friends, family, and even strangers. We could never thank all who helped us in our time of need. When people offer assistance, no matter how big or small, take it. You are not alone. Embrace these people into your life. They will help lighten the load.
It isn’t easy being a caregiver. It’s not a job you can walk away from or quit when the going gets rough. It will probably be the toughest challenge you ever have to deal with. It’s normal to feel anger, uncertainty, and stress, but don’t allow your emotions to take you hostage. Give yourself time to grieve during the bad days. Nobody is going to cope well every day under stressful circumstances. Never give up hope. Use your resources to help you keep your sanity and navigate through this difficult journey.
It’s been seven years since Heather’s mesothelioma diagnosis, and she is cancer free today. After going through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, she was able to beat this horrible disease. It has taken years for life to return to a somewhat normal routine again.
I have grown through this ordeal. The cancer helped me see how precious time is. It also taught me that my stubbornness has advantages. Two years after Heather’s diagnosis, I went back to school full time to study Information Technology while working a full time job and caring for Heather and our daughter, who was only two years old at the time.
Fighting cancer with my wife taught me how to balance time commitments and cope with stress. This prepared me for the challenges of going back to school and completing my education. I graduated with high honors and was the speaker at my class graduation. I will never forget the feeling of accomplishment I felt as I stood there.
If someone had asked me on November 21, 2005, where I was going to be in five years, I never in a million years would have expected to be up on that stage giving a speech. The future looked dismal that fateful day. Never giving up hope is what made the difference in my life. I learned through this experience that inside each of us is someone capable of accomplishing more than we can imagine. We simply have to believe in ourselves and never give up.
Click here to view a video of Heather’s Story
On the journey with you,