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Learning to be a Caregiver For Someone with Cancer

Cameron, Lily and Heather Von St. James

Cameron, Lily and Heather Von St. James

I’ll never forget the fall of 2005. It was an extremely happy period in my life, but I also fell to an extreme low. This was the year that my wife Heather was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. It was also the year that our first and only child Lily was born. Heather and I could not have been more excited to be new parents, but Heather’s cancer diagnosis ripped away our joy in an instant. My role as a husband and father also became caregiver. It was the role I had never expected or prepared for, nor could understand completely, but I knew I had to learn fast.

We thought that we were going to be celebrating a peaceful Thanksgiving as a new family with Lily, but just three days before, we were called into the doctor’s office.  I never expected to hear that she had cancer. The news was shocking. Heather was silent and white as a ghost as the doctor started to go into treatment options. We had to see a specialist. There was one in Boston and I knew that if Heather had any chance of beating this disease, Boston was where we needed to be. It was going to be tough. Heather had to go through major surgery to remove the affected lung. She also needed rigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Without it, she only had 15 months.

After we left the doctor, the next few months turned everything upside down. We had fairly normal life before. It had been strange becoming accustomed to a newborn in the house, but nothing compared to the sadness and anger I felt over learning that something was trying to take my wife’s life away. Every day, I went to work thinking that I should be home taking care of my wife and baby. When I was at home, that’s exactly what I had to do, as a caregiver, husband and father. I had to be the rock for my family, and it was not easy. There were moments that I remember sitting on the floor just sobbing because I couldn’t handle all of the stress. My brain was too overactive, and I pictured the worst happening to us. What if we lost everything paying for treatment and she didn’t pull through?

My life went up and down for a time. I was working to help pay off all the medical bills, but I was also helping to provide child care for Lily. There were a lot of things that I had to do each and every day as a caregiver in addition to the daily routine.  Luckily, we were blessed with all kinds of love and affection from family, friends and even people we didn’t know. They offered everything from a kind word to financial help. Heather’s parents were the best during this time. They helped with child care for Lily and even provided financial assistance for the more expensive bills that we faced. They also gave Heather a calm, quiet place to recover after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Caring for someone with cancer is the toughest job I’ve ever had. You have to be careful with your emotions and you have to show strength, no matter what you think is going on or what will happen. However, when people offer help, you should always accept. They help you to realize that we don’t face the toughest challenges alone and that there is all kinds of love in this world to help you through rough times.

I went through my test as a caregiver flailing sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t pick myself up and continue going. I never allowed myself to be so overcome by fear or anger that I didn’t do my duties as a husband and father. I had my bad days, as any caregiver will certainly do.  This is inevitable and necessary, but the important thing is to never give up hope.

My family is blessed to have made it through this ordeal with cancer. My wife is free from mesothelioma seven years later, and we have a beautiful family together. We were so blessed to have so much support during our battle with cancer, and now by sharing our story, we wish to offer hope and support to others currently battling today.

Queries CANSA

If you find yourself unexpectedly in the role of caregiver and you need advice or support, please contact our Toll Free Call Centre on 0800 22 66 22 or contact your local CANSA Care Centre. You can also download CANSA’s CancerCare Coping Kit Audioprogramme.

Download CANSA’s latest fact sheet re Mesothelioma here…

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