Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Guide Your Family Through Tough Times after the Bombshell of a Cancer Diagnosis

I am publishing a post from a guest blogger: Cameron Von St. James. He tells an inspirational story of dealing with his wife's grim cancer diagnosis, learning to become a caregiver and keeping up the fight. Because my blog is designed to inspire and educate people, I welcome his contribution.

There are some dates in your life that are burned into your memory forever. Some of these dates, like my wedding date and my daughter's birthday, are happy memories. However, I will also never forget November 21, 2005 for different reasons. On that memorable date, my wife Heather and I were informed that she was suffering from malignant pleural mesothelioma.  As soon as she became a cancer patient, I became a caregiver to her.

Right before we received the diagnosis, we were planning ways to make the holidays special for our daughter, Lily. She was only 3 months old, and we were looking forward to spending our first Christmas together in Minnesota as a family of three. Once the doctor informed us of Heather's diagnosis, my caregiving duties  started right away. Heather's form of cancer was very serious (her life expectancy was 3 to 12 months) so we needed to immediately make some treatment decisions.  According to our doctor, we could choose to seek treatment locally, visit a regional hospital without an official mesothelioma treatment facility or make an appointment with a respected mesothelioma specialist in Boston.

I looked at Heather to get her input, and I will never forget the look on her face. She was completely in shock and disbelief. I knew that I needed to step up and make the decision when she could not. I let the doctor know that we wanted to go to Boston for treatment as soon as possible.

The important decisions did not stop once we chose a physician. It seemed like every day was filled with large and small decisions that needed to be made right away. Our lives had been scheduled and organized before the cancer diagnosis. Heather and I both worked full-time, and we would come home and spend the evenings with Lily. Mesothelioma strained our family financially because Heather had to quit her job right away. I was only able to work part time as I cared for Heather and Lily. Since we had decided to seek treatment in Boston, my days were spent trying to work, take care of Lily, handle the household duties and making travel plans to support my wife.

Although the physical tasks were difficult, the emotional strain was even more overwhelming. I was terrified of the possibility of losing my wife and having to raise my daughter alone. There were some days that I would just collapse in tears on the kitchen floor. I felt a whole range of emotions from anger to devastation. Feeling these emotions was not wrong, but I had to learn how to deal with them in a constructive manner.
Heather, Lily and Cameron Von St. James

The things I was feeling were overwhelming, but I knew that I had to get it together for Heather and Lily. I refused to let myself wallow in my feelings of helplessness.
One of the things that helped me the most was the fact that Heather and I were surrounded by a wonderful support system. Our family and friends were invaluable, and there were even complete strangers who stepped up to offer assistance. People gave assistance to us in a myriad of different ways. The financial help allowed us to pay our bills during the tight months, and it was wonderful to know that Lily was being taken care of by other people who volunteered to take over some of my caregiving duties.

If you are ever called upon to be a caregiver, you will quickly find out that it is not an easy task. I do not say this to discourage people, but I want them to understand what to expect. No human being can do everything on his or her own, so do not be afraid to learn how to ask for help. When people volunteer to help your family, let them know a few specific ways that they can assist you.  Above all else, never give up hope for a better future for your family.

It took a long time for our lives to settle down. Heather's treatment plan included   mesothelioma surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. However, it is now seven years after her initial diagnosis, and I am thrilled to say that she remains cancer free.

I could never have imagined the journey that my family would be forced to endure, but we all learned so much through our situation. I have always been a stubborn person, and I learned to use this stubbornness in a positive way to advocate for my wife. I was able to change my life by going back to school for my Information Technology degree and acquiring a better job to help my family.

Heather and I also learned in a very real way how precious life is. We do not take the moments that we get to spend with each other and with Lily for granted. We know how very blessed we are, and we wish to share our story of hope with all those who are currently fighting cancer today, in the hope that it may inspire them to never give up, and to always keep fighting for the ones they love.