Today I welcome the insight of a special caregiver. Cameron Von St. James has been kind enough to share his struggles and triumphs as a caregiver for his wife Heather. While every caregiving journey is different, we all share the same fears, frustrations, and overwhelming emotions that sometimes threaten to derail our efforts on behalf of those we love most. Read Cameron’s story here and then watch his inspirational video. I wish Cameron and his family many continued blessings and want to thank him for providing inspiration to help others dealing with similar challenges.
Being a Caregiver and Holding Onto Hope
By Cameron Von St. James
For my wife Heather and me, life completely changed on November 21, 2005. It was on that day that a doctor told us Heather had malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare and very deadly type of cancer. On that day, I became her caregiver, and I quickly learned that I was not prepared for the job. Only three months earlier, we were celebrating the birth of our first and only child, Lily. We pictured spending the late fall celebrating Thanksgiving and getting ready for our first Christmas as a family of three. Instead, we spent it in doctors’ offices, and our lives quickly became characterized by chaos.
As we sat in the doctor’s office that day, we learned about mesothelioma and were told Heather needed to see a specialist for treatment. The doctor said we could choose between going to a regional hospital that, although excellent, did not have a specific program dedicated to mesothelioma, a local university hospital or to Boston to see Dr. David Sugarbaker, a doctor who specialized in the disease. I waited for Heather to speak up with a question or a preference, but the room remained silent. I looked over at her, and her face was stuck in a look of disbelief and shock. She looked terrified, and I knew she needed help. I told our doctor that we would go to Boston.
For two months, our daily routines were replaced with utter chaos. I dropped down to working only part-time following my wife’s diagnosis, and she quit working altogether to focus on her health. My life consisted of working, caring for Lily and going to Boston for Heather’s appointments. My to-do list kept growing each day, and I felt totally overwhelmed. My mind filled with anxieties. I worried constantly about Heather dying from cancer, losing all our money on medical bills and ending up caring for Lily alone, broke and homeless. This fear crippled me a few times, and I ended up sobbing uncontrollably on the kitchen floor. Thankfully, the feeling always went away, and I took great care to never show Heather my weakness. I wanted and needed to remain strong for her.
I needed help with so many big and little things, and our family, friends and even strangers offered it. I learned to take all the help I could get, and I will always be thankful to those who lightened our burdens during this difficult time. They reminded me that I was not alone and that they truly cared about Heather and me.
Being a caregiver is the hardest job in the world. The experience is defined by stress, chaos and uncertainty, and it is a true test. If you let them, your emotions can take you hostage, but you always have to hold onto hope. You can have bad days every once in a while, that is only natural given the circumstances, but you always have to have hope in the back of your mind and in your heart. I tapped every resource I could to keep that hope, remain sane and get through the experience.
Over the following months, Heather would undergo intense and difficult treatment for mesothelioma, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. It has now been seven years since we sat in that doctor’s office and got the terrible news of Heather’s diagnosis. Today, I am thrilled and grateful to say she is cancer free, happy and healthy, and an incredible mom to our daughter.
My experience as a caregiver taught me that sometimes, being stubborn is a good thing. The experience also confirmed to me that time is indeed precious. Lily celebrated her second birthday about two years after Heather’s diagnosis, and I went back to school to earn a degree in Information Technology.
Fighting cancer with Heather taught me how to manage my time and cope with stress. As a student, these skills came in handy, and I graduated with high honors. I was invited to speak at commencement, and I spoke about Heather. I talked about the uncertainty that haunted us following her diagnosis, but also the hope that gave us strength. With that hope and belief in myself, I learned that anything is possible.