We’re All In This Together

Today I am pleased to present a guest post from a fellow blogger – Cameron Von St. James – whose wife Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma back in 2005, at the age of 36, only three months after giving birth to their daughter Lily.  The fact that she is still alive today, over 7 years later, offers hope to all of us facing a terminal illness.  And reminds us to NEVER give up hope!

Both Heather and Cameron are regular bloggers on the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog.  Their story is amazing.  And I am happy to share a few of Cameron’s words about his experience as a caregiver and husband to a fellow cancer warrior and survivor.

Peace and love,  – T

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Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Heather, Cameron, and daughter Lily.

My wife often wonders what it was like for me when she was diagnosed with cancer. I remember the day she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. I remember seeing the tears well up in her eyes and fall down her cheeks as I wondered how we would get through something like this. Heather was diagnosed only three months after giving birth to our daughter, Lily. Our lives went from complete joy and happiness, full excitement about our little family’s future, to anger, fear and confusion in an instant.

I was overwhelmed with emotion and on the verge of breaking down when the doctor brought me back to reality. He talked about the many medical decisions we would be asked to make while experiencing these emotions. I realized that this moment would be the first of many times we would be forced to make impossible decisions while facing unimaginable emotional upheaval.

I was so angry and scared at first that I began lashing out and communicating with people using profanity. I couldn’t help it.  I was angry at the world for putting my family in this cruel and unfair situation, but I quickly realized that this attitude was not going to help us. I needed to change and provide my family with a sense of stability and hope. I wanted to be strong for Heather and Lily. I wanted to be Heather’s rock, and I wanted to be her source of optimism. I was able to do it, eventually, but it wasn’t easy.

My list of things to do was a mile long after the diagnosis. I was so overwhelmed with my job, taking care of Heather, Lily, our home, our pets, and making travel arrangements that I wondered how I would get through it all. Fortunately, we are very blessed to be surrounded by people who love and care for us, and they offered to help. I was still overwhelmed with the entire situation, but I was able to prioritize what I could and accept all the help that was offered and get through it. I was very lucky, and I will forever be grateful to each and every one of the people who helped us through.

The most difficult part for me was being apart from my wife and daughter for two months. Heather flew to South Dakota to stay with her parents immediately after her extrapleural pneumonectomy surgery in Boston. Lily was already there with Heather’s parents during the operation. She and Lily spent the next two months there, while I remained at home to work. There was no way I could work and care for my wife and daughter at the same time while Heather recovered from her surgery and prepared to start radiation and chemotherapy. I don’t look back at that time with regret, however. As hard as it was to be away from them, I knew that it was the best thing I could do for my family.

I saw Heather and Lily only once those two months. It was a Friday night when I decided to get in the car and make the 11-hour drive to see them. I drove through a snowstorm, stopping to sleep in my car for a few hours while the plows did their best to clear the roads. I spent all day with them, exhausted but happy, on Saturday and then got back into my car on Sunday to make the 11 hour drive home. I had to be at work on Monday morning.

I learned something important during this time. I learned that I am very blessed to have so much help and support from our loving friends and family. We also learned not to regret or second-guess any of the tough choices that cancer forced us to make, but to take comfort in the fact that we retained the ability to make choices at all. Heather’s been well for more than six years now, and I can only hope that my words will help someone else in the same position.

– Cameron Von St. James

Dad Chimes In

My dad – the infamous author Spider Robinson – would like to share a few thoughts about the noble task of caring for a loved one with cancer.  Having been on both sides of the equation I couldn’t agree more with his sentiments.  So here we go…

EU TE AMO, MEU GENRO! (a guest post by Spider Robinson)

I am grateful to my daughter for allowing me to hijack her splendid blog for a day.  I want to use it to propose a quick toast to The Unsung Hero, the overlooked warrior who is currently fighting one of the most difficult battles imaginable: one in which there isn’t a damn thing he can do, but keep smiling as if nothing were wrong.  I speak of course of Terri’s Heroic Hubby, Heron Gonçalves da Silva.  I happen to have walked a very long mile in his shoes, and I’m here to tell you all—since he can’t—how much his feet hurt, right now.  So much, it’s hard to remain standing.  And still, he keeps going.

There are two full-grown Graceful Warriors in the da Silva family, and only one of them is a woman.

When something attacks their loved ones, men are supposed to fight bravely, ferociously.  It doesn’t help at all that there is no enemy available to attack, here.  Heron’s wife is under deadly threat, and everything in his warrior heart yearns to hunt down whoever’s doing it, and kill the bastard, as many times as necessary.  And he can’t.  He is more helpless than if he had no arms or legs: he can’t even try to bite the enemy to death.  I remember very well the sense of total panic that can overwhelm you in those circumstances.  It’s the kind of dilemma that can send some completely round the bend; I don’t mind admitting that at times it very nearly finished me.  But Heron knows he can’t afford that kind of self-indulgence.  He just keeps on coping, quietly, steadily, every day, every hour.  I have watched him deal with Terri’s situation literally from day one, and I want to say I am seriously impressed, fiercely proud of my amazing son-in-law.

All the time Terri’s mother was battling cancer, well-meaning friends would always thoughtfully remind me to be sure and remember to take care of myself, too.  Unfortunately, none of them ever came up with a concrete suggestion as to exactly how I might do that.  Not their fault: there just aren’t many good suggestions for how to endure the unendurable.

But by accident, I stumbled across one thing that helped more than you might think: small self-indulgences.

I found it really helped to treat myself, in small ways, any chance I got.  Go a few extra bucks for the Haagen-Daaz, for a change.  Buy some of the CDs on your own amazon.com wishlist.  Spring for the really good coffee.  Get that hardcover book you’ve been jonesing for, instead of waiting for the paperback.  Little things like that.  You might be amazed how much such silly little things can affect your morale.  If you feel powerless, empower yourself.  My personal hero, Robert A. Heinlein, taught me, “Budget the luxuries first.”

So if you’re making up a care package for Terri—goodies, dollars, whatever—please consider throwing in a few good cigars for Heron, or a twenty dollar bill or two earmarked specifically for him, perhaps for purchase of cachaça, the magical ingredient of his favorite drink, the caiparinha.  And don’t forget to throw him a personal Attaboy, every once in a while.  What he’s doing is, although he’d probably deny it, at least as hard as undergoing chemotherapy….and the person who’s usually in charge of improving his morale is busy at the moment, letting him improve hers.

So let’s remember his courage and sacrifice, and throw him a respectful salute: he deserves it.

Hip, hip—Heron!  Hip, hip—Heron!  Hip, hip—Heron!

Obrigado, meu genro.  I am so glad my daughter chose you—and so was her mother.

–Spider