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Friday, 3 May 2013

Helping My Wife Battle Cancer

I will forever remember November 21, 2005 as the most devastating day of my life. On that terrible day, my beloved wife, Heather, and I found out that she had mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs caused by asbestos exposure. That was also when I started my job as her primary caregiver, something I could have never been prepared for. Just a few months before, we'd been elated about having had our first and only child, a girl named Lily. We were positively overjoyed at the prospect of our baby's first Christmas. However, as fate would have it, things don't always turn out the way you planned them to.

Even before we left the doctor's office, what it meant to be my wife's caregiver really started to sink in. Heather's doctor provided us with some information on mesothelioma and recommended that we seek the services of a specialist. One option would let us stay near home and go to a university hospital. Another was to go to an excellent regional hospital which unfortunately lacked an established mesothelioma program. The last option would require a trip to Boston to see Dr. David Sugarbaker, a foremost expert in the field.

I looked over to my wife, waiting for her to speak or choose an option, but she just looked devastated, like she wanted someone to pull her from a nightmare. I guess it probably wasn't far from the truth. I knew she needed help, so I decided that we should go to Boston. They said that Dr. Sugarbaker was the best, and now I could only pray that he would be able to save my wife.

The two months following that were pure chaos. We had no routine to speak of. We both used to work full time, but Heather quit so she could focus on healing. I started working part time so I could help out as much as I could. I had to balance care for my wife, my infant daughter and my job. It was my task to arrange travel, appointments and help care for our child. I was overwhelmed. I grappled with the fear that I'd end up a broke, homeless single dad raising a baby. Several times, I broke down on the kitchen floor in my misery. Thankfully, we had a wonderful support system that helped us through these tough times.

Everybody was so willing to help us and they gave us everything ranging from moral support to financial relief. We will never be capable of properly thanking them for the help that they gave us. One of the most important pieces of advice that I can give to people who are struggling through a similar situation is this: big or small, accept the help that you're being offered. That's one less thing on your plate that you have to deal with. Loved ones, friends and even strangers will want to help you.

There is no way to avoid the fact that it's very hard to take care of somebody who's suffering from cancer. It's perfectly normal to feel like you're being overcome with grief and it will likely be the hardest time of your life. Like many other parts of life, however, it's not like you can just ignore it and have it go away. You can't allow your fear to consume you and you can't let the uncertainty run your life. It's healthy and natural to experience hard times on occasion, but you can't let it suck the hope out of you. Take advantage of every resource that you have that enables you to maintain your sanity in the darkest hours.

A couple of years passed before things regained a sense of normality. Heather's odds of beating cancer were very poor, but despite those odds, she emerged victorious over the illness. After months of difficult mesothelioma treatment, she remains happy, healthy and cancer free seven years later.

The biggest lesson that I took from this entire incident is that my stubbornness could be used to my advantage. Furthermore, the limited amount of time that we have on this Earth is precious and should be savored. With these lessons in mind, even though I was tasked with a job and the care of my wife and daughter, I had the determination to go back to school to earn my degree in Information Technology.

After being required to manage multiple responsibilities during Heather’s battle, I believed that I was well-equipped to pursue this dream of mine. I completed college with high honors and was asked to give a speech during graduation. I spoke at length about my wife's battle with cancer and told everyone that just a few years earlier, hearing that my wife could die in a matter of months, I never imagined my life would turn out the way it did. Heather taught me that as long as we never give up hope, and always keep fighting for the ones we love, we are capable of achieving incredible things. 

Mr. Cameron Von St. James

PS: I am very grateful to Cameron for his honest and heartfelt sharing. It is never easy to face cancer and even more difficult when dealing with a cancer like mesothelioma that is associated with a poor prognosis. But, they have came out victorious and we share their happiness. I hope that this sharing will encourage you if you are fighting your cancer and motivate you to persevere if you are a caregiver. There is light at the end of the tunnel although it may be dim at times. Do not look too far ahead. Focus on the spotlight at your feet below and take one step at a time. Looking ahead and not downwards at your current steps may cause you to stumble. Life is indeed precious. Cherish it and live it out, one day at a time. 

Dr. Choo 

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