My wife Heather and I will always remember the date: November 21, 2005. On that day, Heather received a cancer diagnosis of malignant pleural mesothelioma. Also on that day, I became a caregiver to one with a cancer diagnosis. I was hardly prepared for this new role. Only three months earlier we had celebrated the birth of Lily, our firstborn. We initially looked forward to the magic of Lily’s first Christmas, only to see our lives quickly descend into the chaos of a cancer battle.
My role as a caregiver began even before we left the physician’s office. The doctor described three facilities that could provide treatment; an area university hospital, a regional hospital with a less-developed mesothelioma program, or a mesothelioma specialist in Boston, Dr. David Sugarbaker. I looked to my wife for her views, but she was silent. I could read the look on her face. It said, “Oh God, please help me!” I quickly made the first of many more difficult decisions to come. “Get us to Boston,” I said.
Our former routines were shattered over the next couple of months. We had both been working full-time. Now, I worked part-time, and Heather couldn’t work at all. The rest of my time was filled with traveling to Boston for my wife’s medical appointments and taking care of Lily. I felt overwhelmed by the growing “to-do” list. The fear of losing my wife to this disease was overwhelming. I thought of being a penniless widower with a little girl to care for all on my own. More than once I fell to the kitchen floor crying uncontrollably. I just wished this nightmare would disappear. I had these moments of weakness, but always did my best to hide them from my wife. I knew that she needed me to be strong, and the last thing she needed was to see my fears.
Here’s some key advice that I can offer to anyone else in a similar situation: if someone offers to help, accept their offer. We were blessed by family, friends, and even strangers who helped us with everything from financial assistance to emotional support. It will always remain impossible to thank them all enough. However, I had to learn the hard way to accept their generous offers. At first, my pride and stubbornness got in the way. Take it from someone who has been there before: there is no room for pride in a battle with cancer. Even the smallest offer of help can be a huge weight off your shoulders, and at the very least will remind you that you are not alone in the fight.
The role of caregiver can be unrelenting. With college or work one can quit, slack or walk away. There’s no quitting when you are a caregiver. No matter how chaotic, stressful, and uncertain life gets, one must endure. The paralysis of fear or anger cannot be allowed to take over. Allow yourself to have bad days, but never give up hope. Use everything at your disposal to maintain your sanity as you forge a path forward.
Heather ultimately fought her cancer with mesothelioma surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Against difficult odds she won her battle against cancer. Now, seven years later, she is cancer-free.
Over the years that it took to regain some sense of normalcy, I learned to use my innate stubbornness to my advantage. I also learned how precious life is. Two years after my wife was first diagnosed, I returned to school while maintaining my full-time job and caring for both two-year old Lily and her mom. I began a full-time course of study in Information Technology.
Critical life skills that I developed while helping Heather prepared me well for returning to school. I graduated with high honors. I even gave the commencement address. It focused on my wife’s cancer diagnosis and the challenges that ensued. Just five short years earlier I would never have imagined being up on that stage, delivering such a speech. If we believe in ourselves and maintain hope, there is indeed no limit to what we can achieve.
-Cameron Von St. James
Read more about the Von St. James family and their inspiring mesothelioma survival story at mesothelioma.com.