There had been many times in my life when the evil inner voice in my head kept asking, “How are you going to pull through with all these daily struggles and constant pain brought on by Rheumatoid Arthritis? Have you ever thought about the stress and inconvenience, mental or physical, that you’ve brought upon your loved ones?” Most of these times, I couldn’t answer myself. And the only way I dealt with this was hiding inside the toilet and breaking out in tears. Alone. I can’t be seen in such a weak state. It took me hours and at times, days, to get past these flood of negative emotions and guilt; to finally realise how all these tears and cries aren’t going to help me in any ways. In fact, the more stresses I endured, the more harm and pain I felt in all my joints.
On days when I was beaten down by RA, I tried my best to pull myself back together again. I did this by reading and listening to someone’s healing journey from whatever health conditions they’re facing. I felt so inspired by the courage, resiliency and grace that they exhibited in their own battles. Their stories reveal a crucial lesson about overcoming the odds and healing from chronic illnesses. That is, the remarkable refusal to give up! They kept getting back up even when they’ve been repeatedly knocked down. Along access to internal and external resources for support, pain mitigation and healing, this dynamics help shift a person from surviving to thriving.
Speaking about overcoming the odds and thriving in the wake of chronic illnesses, it reminds me of Cameron Von St. James.
And it is my pleasure today to feature a guest contribution from Cameron, who steps up and selflessly shares with all of you his personal experience as a caregiver to his wife, Heather, who was diagnosed with an extremely rare and deadly cancer called Mesothelioma. With Mesothelioma, a person normally has a life expectancy of about 3-12 months, but after intense treatment and recovery, Heather is still thriving 7 years later. Read on. There is important message or life lesson that Cameron wishes to convey as he recalled their struggles through so many hardships during that rough patch of their lives; and how they overcame the odds and thrived.
My wife Heather and I will never forget November 21, 2005. On that day Heather was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. On that day I became a caregiver for a diagnosed cancer patient, and that was a job that I wasn’t prepared for in the least. A little over three months before Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma, we had celebrated the birth of our daughter Lily, our first and only child. We had assumed that this time of the year we would be preparing for Lily’s first Christmas and celebrating the holidays, but instead our lives took a rapid turn for the worse, and Heather began a fight for her life.
Even before we left the doctor’s office when Heather was diagnosed, the realities of being required to care for someone diagnosed with cancer were apparent. Our doctor explained a few things about mesothelioma to us and mentioned that we would need to talk to a specialist for treatment options. He gave us three options: a hospital at a local university, a regional hospital was excellent but lacking a developed mesothelioma program, or Dr. David Sugarbaker – a doctor in Boston that specialized in treating mesothelioma. I glanced at my wife, waiting for her to show some interest in one of these three options or ask questions, but she was silent. It was obvious by the look of shock on her face that she was in shock and disbelief. Her expression silently said, “Please, God, help me!” Knowing I would have to take the initiative, I looked at our doctor and said “Get us to Boston!”
The following two months were extremely chaotic, and our daily routines were destroyed. Prior to her diagnosis, both Heather and I had been working full-time, but after the diagnosis she was unable to work, and I was only working part time. In addition to working, I was also accompanying my wife to her appointments, taking care of the travel arrangements for our trip to Boston and taking care of our daughter. It didn’t take long for me to become overwhelmed by the constantly growing list of things to do. I began facing the fears that my wife would not be able to beat the cancer, and we would end up spending all of our money and losing all of our possessions to fight the disease, leaving me a broke, homeless widower with a young daughter. Several times this fear overtook me, and I found myself bawling my eyes on the kitchen floor. I just wanted all of it to go away. Luckily, the feeling of helplessness would quickly fade. I took great care in making sure Heather never saw me when I was weak. It was vital that I be her rock; I had to stay strong for her.
Thankfully, Heather and I were blessed with help from our family, friends and complete strangers. From comforting words to financial assistance, everything was offered to us. It would be impossible to ever completely thank everyone that helped us out. One of the few tips I can give to those who have been diagnosed with cancer or their caregivers, is that if someone offers you help, accept their offer. No matter how big or small the assistance is, it’s still one less thing to worry about, and it will remind you that you are not alone. There are other people who care for you, people who can be called upon to help ease the burdens. Take advantage of that.
Providing care to a person who has been diagnosed with cancer is not easy, and there is no way to get around that fact. At times, you will likely experience chaos, uncertainty and stress. It will probably be the toughest challenge you ever face, and unlike school or work you can’t just quit or walk away from it if you feel like giving up. It’s very important that you don’t let fear or anger take you hostage. Give yourself the right to have bad days — given the circumstances, it is unfair to expect someone to be at their best at all times. Just remember to never give up hope, and use every resource available to maintain your sanity and navigate through this journey.
It took years to get our life back to anything close to a normal routine. Heather had gone through radiation treatment, chemotherapy and surgery while fighting mesothelioma, and despite the odds she was able to beat this terrible disease. Seven years have passed since her diagnosis, and she is cancer free today.
One thing I took away from this experience was how to use my stubbornness as an advantage. It served as a reminder of how precious time is. Because of that, two years after Heather was diagnosed, while working full-time and continuing to care for Heather and our two-year-old daughter, I went back to school to study Information Technology.
The experience I had dealing with stress and balancing time commitments while helping my wife fight cancer left me well-equipped to go back to school. I was the student graduation speaker of my class and graduated with high honors. I recall my graduation speech very well — it was that, after my wife was diagnosed with cancer, if you had asked me where I would be in five years, that I never would have thought I would be on that stage giving that speech, with my healthy wife and daughter in the crowd to cheer me on. I told them all to never give up hope, and to know that within all of us there is someone who is able to accomplish more than we can imagine, so long as we believe in ourselves.
What message(s) or life lesson(s) did you take away from Cameron’s story? For me, I have learned that survivors of chronic illness – be it cancer or RA – (including myself) do thrive by having a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation of whatever coping strategies we need to use to survive. We believe and are strong enough to say ‘no’ to giving up. And, we do not allow adversity to put a glass ceiling on new possibilities. At my conclusion, I’d like to thank Cameron once again for his inspiring story and I do hope that you can identify with his story and take away some important messages about healing from a chronic illness. We’d loved to hear from you if you have similar experiences to share with us.