Guest Post: Caregiving, from a Guy's Perspective

Caregiving: Making Every Minute Count
by Cameron Von St. James, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

You can learn more about this month's guest blogger here: 

Life is full of surprises -- some good, and some that we are not prepared for. My wife, Heather, and I had just celebrated the birth of our first and only child, Lily, in the summer of 2005.  We couldn't wait to celebrate the upcoming holidays with our precious new addition. However, on November 21, 2005, our joy quickly turned to despair as we were blindsided by unexpected news. Heather had been diagnosed with cancer -- malignant pleural mesothelioma. In an instant, my role changed from a husband and father to the caregiver of a cancer patient. 

The doctor implied that this was not going to be easy, and Heather would need care. He explained the course that mesothelioma would most likely take, and recommended seeing a specialist. There were three treatment options that he gave us: the local university hospital, a regional hospital with an excellent reputation, but without an established mesothelioma program, or commute to Boston to see a renowned specialist, Dr. David Sugarbaker. We were waiting for an answer from my wife as to which treatment she preferred, but still in shock, she could not answer. 

She stared into space with disbelief on her face. Immediately, I told the doctor to set us up for Boston. All I could do then was pray that this doctor could save my wife.

Over the next two months, our previous daily routines were nonexistent. We both had full time jobs prior to her diagnosis, but due to traveling to appointments in Boston, I had to take care of Lily and only work part-time. Heather could not work at all, instead focusing on her health. The list of things to do was endless and overwhelming. I found myself secretly crying out in frustration. I feared what fighting this disease would cost; that my wife would die from this cancer and leave me a broke, homeless widower with a young daughter to raise. However, I realized that this was not about me, and I had to focus on seeing that Heather got the best I had to offer. I had to stay strong for her and not let her see my weakness.

We were offered help by our families, friends, and people we didn't even know, from phone calls, cards, and letters to financial assistance. As a caregiver, I learned not to be too proud to accept help when offered. I was worried about imposing on someone's time -- but if they didn't really mean it, they wouldn't have asked. We could never give enough thanks for the help we received. Even small things make a big difference, and most of all, it is reassurance that you are not alone.

Being a caregiver is not easy, no matter how you look at it. Besides the added responsibilities, the stress is unreal. You never know what will happen next, and you have to be prepared for it. You cannot walk away from it no matter how you feel. Anger and fear can take over and you will have bad days -- there’s no avoiding it. However, remember why and for whom you are doing this, and never give up hope. Caregiving is one of those life challenges in which the caregiver needs every outlet possible to remain sane.

Our lives finally leveled off after a few years of upheaval, and we had a somewhat normal schedule again. We managed to get Heather safely through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and despite the typically poor prognosis for mesothelioma, she was able to beat this terrible disease. Thankfully, she has been cancer free for seven years.

Being a caregiver taught me many things about life. First, pride is replaced with humility in caregiving. This is about them, not you. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, because your loved one needs the best care possible, whether it's from you or someone else. 

Never give up hope. Challenges may arise that you never would have imagined, but you can overcome them with hope.

Being a caregiver also taught me time management skills and how to deal with stress. Two years after Heather's diagnosis, I went back to school and earned a college degree. 

During this difficult journey, I learned to never stop fighting for a loved one with a serious illness. My relationship with Heather and Lily has grown deeper, and I learned a lot about myself and my strengths and capabilities through the experience. Today, I look at my wife and daughter and I can’t believe how lucky I am. If you are a caregiver to a loved one, never give up hope, and always keep fighting, and you might find that you’re capable of more than you ever thought possible. 

Thank you, Cameron, for sharing your story and for reminding caregivers that they're not alone. I know your words will encourage and inspire others who are in the midst of a caregiving experience.