The Struggles of Being a Caregiver by Cameron Von St. James

On November 21, 2005, my wife was diagnosed with cancer: malignant pleural mesothelioma. It was also my first day as a caregiver for my wife. That was definitely not a job I ever expected to have. I will never forget the fear and confusion of that day.


It had only been three months prior that we were filled with joy and happiness at the birth of our only child, Lily. She was a gift, and we looked forward to happy days filled with watching her grow and experience her first Christmas. It was supposed to be the happiest moment of our lives, but those special days quickly vanished as we struggled with Heather’s diagnosis and what it meant to be a caregiver for a cancer patient.


My job as caregiver and all the responsibilities that come with that position started immediately, even before we left the doctor’s office. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with information as the doctor told us about mesothelioma. I had to learn quickly. However, it didn’t stop there. Major decisions had to be made. Heather’s doctor explained she needed a specialist and provided us with three choices: the local university hospital, a regional hospital which lacked a mesothelioma program, or Dr. David Sugarbaker in Boston. Dr. Sugarbaker’s specialty was mesothelioma, and he was definitely the best option. I waited for Heather to voice her opinion, and when she didn’t, I looked at her. She just stared at the doctor in shock, still trying to comprehend the situation. I that moment, I knew my job as a caregiver was bigger than I thought, and I needed to be strong for Heather.  I turned back to the doctor and told him to get us to Boston. That was the first decision I had to help make as Heather’s caregiver, but it was far from the last.


After her diagnosis, our daily lives went from normal to chaos. Heather had to quit working, and I had to change from full-time to part-time in order to give myself enough time to be her caregiver. Of course, there still weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything. Not only did I have to work my job and do the day to day household chores, I had to take care of Lily, take Heather to doctor appointments, and make travel arrangements. The list of things to do seemed to double each day, and I had to deal with it while fighting my fears that this cancer would take Heather’s life. More than once, the fear brought me to my knees, crying and begging for everything to just go back to normal. I wasn’t going to make it. I could barely take care of myself, let alone Heather and Lily. I never let Heather see me like that. I didn’t want her to know how much I was struggling. Perhaps it was this desire to be strong for her that allowed me to fight through the overwhelming helplessness. I learned to focus on what needed to get done and learned to manage my day. The helplessness subsided.


Luckily, Heather and I were blessed. We had many friends and family members who wanted to help. Even people we hardly knew offered help. They offered help that ranged from comforting words to financial assistance. There is no way we will ever be able to repay or successfully thank those people who helped us enough. Even the smallest bit of help meant everything to us, and my advice to anyone who has cancer or is a caregiver is to accept all the help you can. Even if it is something small, that is one less thing you have to do, and you’ll have to do a lot.


Being a caregiver is one of the toughest jobs in the world, and there is no way to avoid the struggle, pain and stress that comes with that job. There will be days you feel like you can’t keep going, but you have to dig deep into yourself and find the strength to continue. This isn’t a job you can simply walk away from. Someone’s life is in your hands, and you must be strong. Do not allow negative emotions to take over, but do not be afraid to have bad days. Bad days are just part of life. Above all, don’t give up. Keep up the fight. For us, the struggle lasted years. Heather had to experience mesothelioma surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but she beat the odds and survived. Seven years later, she is still cancer free.


Those were some of the toughest years of my life, but I don’t regret what I learned during my time as a caregiver. I learned that asking for help is not a weakness, it is a strength. No matter what, I never let go of hope. Even on the worst days, I held onto that hope and used it as my anchor to keep me steady. Being a caregiver prepared me to deal with any challenge, including going back to school and earning my degree. If you ever end up caring for a loved one, remember to keep fighting and hold on to hope.