How I Learned to Be Cancer Caregiver

By Cameron Von St. James

After my wife’s mesothelioma diagnosis, she often commented that she couldn’t imagine what I went through as her husband and caregiver. I realize now that my story can be of some benefit to those currently fighting cancer, and I wanted to share more of my perspective with them.

Our daughter, Lily, was born just three months before Heather’s diagnosis.  Our lives were full of joy and excitement at the thought of what the future held for our new family. However, all of that happiness would be ripped away from us in an instant just three short months later. I remember how I felt after her diagnosis, filled with uncertainty and fear. Heather was crying, and I could not imagine how we would get through this.

I remember feeling so overwhelmed in the next few moments. I wanted to break down and cry. The only thing that brought me back to reality was the physician’s questions. Though I was overwhelmed, I realized that I still had to make life or death decisions with my wife.

Immediately after the diagnosis, I had a range of emotions including fear, anger and rage. Because I didn’t know how to manage my anger, I often used profanity and lashed out at others in an effort to vent my emotions. However, I quickly realized that my wife needed me to be strong, and that lashing out at others could only cause more harm. Eventually, I learned to control my emotions better and keep them in check. It was important for Heather to view me as a source of optimism and stability, and from that moment on that is all I tried to be.

After the diagnosis, there were many days when I had a long list of tasks to complete, and I was overwhelmed. I had to work, make travel arrangements for medical appointments, care for our daughter and pets, take care of the house – the list went on and on. I couldn’t see how I would ever get everything done. I had to learn to prioritize and create a routine. Most important, however, was learning to ask for help. We were so blessed to have a community of friends and family all willing and eager to help in any way that they could, but it took me a long time to accept their generous offers, thinking that I could do everything on my own. However, once I finally did accept their help, a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I will be forever grateful to each and every person who offered us a helping hand during this difficult time.

The hardest part by far, for me, was the two months following Heather’s surgery in Boston. Heather underwent a major surgery called an extrapleural pneumonectomy, and during the operation we sent Lily to South Dakota to stay with Heather’s parents. As soon as she was well enough to travel, Heather left Boston to join Lily at her parent’s house, while I returned home to continue working. Heather needed constant care during her recovery, and we both knew that I would be unable to care for her and Lily while working full time to support us. Therefore, we made the very difficult decision to be apart for the next two months while she recovered and prepared for chemotherapy and radiation treatments. During those two months, I was able to see my family only one time.

I missed them so much that one Friday night after work I drove 11 hours through a major snowstorm. I even had to pull over and sleep for a few hours on the side of the road while the plows did their best to clear a path. When I arrived, I made the most of the 24-hour period I had to spend with my family before driving back for work on Monday morning. It was a lot of grueling travel for a few precious hours with them, but it was worth every second.

I learned a lot during this time. I learned to control my emotions and accept help from other people. Finally, I learned to never regret or second guess the impossible decisions that cancer forces us to make. Rather, we learned to take comfort in those decisions, no matter how difficult, as they gave us some small amount of control over a situation that often seemed completely out of our control. I am happy to share that my wife is still healthy over six years later. I hope our experience will inspire others in their own battles with cancer.