Monday, May 27, 2013

Book review: In the Body of the World

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky to catch Eve Ensler's book reading at Capilano University.

I had read an interview with her in the Vancouver Sun the weekend before the event. Until then, I didn't know Ensler had been treated for uterine cancer. In the interview, she talked about her rage. And I was sold.

As Ensler shared anecdotes of her experience and read from The Body of the World, I felt that kinship I tend to feel when I meet another cancer warrior. All too often, I felt alone during my treatment, despite my friends' and family's efforts to assure me I was not.

Sharing her fear of stopping and being still, Ensler recalled telling someone, "I don't want to be a fucking patient." Amen, sister.

"I feel like this book came from my body," Ensler said. And it reads like it.

In fact, when I completed the book days after seeing her speak, I felt like it could have come from my body too. I told my husband, "It feels like she reached inside my brain and put my words on paper."

The one overwhelming feeling I had, particularly on the days the chemo was exhausting me, was failure. I was angry because my body had failed me. And I was worried if the chemo didn't work and the cancer metastasized, it would be the ultimate failure.

Ensler writes, "All the hundreds of cards and letters and emails I received said the same thing. 'We have no doubt you will make it. You are a force of nature. Nothing can stop you. You will beat this, Eve. You're a fighter.' I know people are trying to give me support and make me feel strong, but sometimes it makes me anxious. What if it just isn't true? What if I can't beat this or it has nothing to do with me? Will it mean I'm a failure and or a failed force of nature, like one of those New York City hurricanes that never shows up after you've put huge taped Xs on your windows? What if it isn't about fighting?"

I wept as I read this particular passage not out of grief but out of relief that someone else got it, that I wasn't alone.

The Body of the World is raw, gut-wrenching, hilarious, and inspirational. If you are a woman, regardless of whether or not you're a cancer warrior, give it a read. I'm pretty sure you won't feel alone either when you are done.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Caring for my wife through cancer

I'm honoured to run today's guest post by Cameron Von St. James, who took care of his wife, Heather, during her treatment for mesothelioma and their infant daughter. Thank you to all the caregivers out there. - Lori

Cameron Von St. James

November 21, 2005 is a day that will be burned in my memory forever. That is the day that my wife Heather received her malignant pleural mesothelioma cancer diagnosis. Immediately, my work as a caregiver started.

It is an understatement to say that I was unprepared for the task. Only three months earlier, Heather and I celebrated the birth of our only child, Lily. Just like any other family, we were planning holiday celebrations and excitedly preparing for Lily’s first Christmas. However, our holiday plans would quickly change, as we began down a long and difficult road to beat cancer.

My journey to becoming a caregiver

My duties as a caregiver began before we even left the doctor’s office where we received the diagnosis.

Heather’s doctor described her cancer in detail. He said we needed a specialist. We had three options. One was the local university hospital. Another was a great regional hospital, but they did not have a mesothelioma program. The third option would be to go all the way to Boston to see Dr. David Sugarbaker, a specialist in mesothelioma.

Looking at Heather, I could see she was in shock and unable to make a decision. Her eyes pleaded with me for help. I made the snap decision to go to Boston. I asked our doctor to help us make the arrangements. This decision was only the first of many I would have to help make as Heather’s caregiver.

Juggling work, caregiving, and baby

In the next two months, we experienced complete chaos as our daily routines totally changed. Heather and I worked full-time jobs before she was diagnosed with cancer. After the diagnosis, she was too sick to work, and I could only work part time in order to care for her.

When I was not at work, I went with my wife to her doctor’s appointments, made travel arrangements for Boston, and took care of our baby, Lily.

It did not take long for me to feel overwhelmed with everything I had to do. I feared losing Heather, ending up broke and homeless with a baby girl. When these fears overwhelmed me, I would end up on the kitchen floor sobbing. I wanted all of this to disappear. Fortunately, I did not let Heather see me like this. I knew I had to be strong for her.

Letting people help

Our friends, family and even complete strangers helped Heather and me. We received everything from words of comfort to financial assistance. We will never be able to adequately thank everyone who helped.

If any of you or your family is diagnosed with cancer and someone offers to help, let them help. It lets you know that you are not alone. People care about you. They can help ease your burden.

Your emotions

Caring for someone with cancer is challenging. You will feel stress, fear and anger. Being a caregiver will probably be the most difficult challenge you will ever face. You cannot simply walk away from this responsibility like you could from a job or attending college.

Do not allow negative emotions take over. It is all right to have bad days. However, it is important to never give up hope.

Life after treatment

After mesothelioma surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Heather beat the cancer. Seven years after her diagnosis, she is cancer free. It took years for our lives to resume as normal. However, I learned how to use my determination to my advantage. I had learned that time is precious.

Two years after Heather’s diagnosis, while I was working full time and caring for Heather and Lily, I decided to attend college and study information technology. My time as a caregiver gave me the skills and the courage I needed to pursue this dream.

I graduated with high honors and even spoke at my graduation. At graduation, I spoke about how I never thought I would be on a stage giving a graduation speech just a few years earlier, sitting in a doctor’s office hearing that my wife had cancer.

I encouraged the graduating class and those attending to never give up on their dreams. Each of us can achieve more than we ever thought possible. All we have to do is believe in ourselves.

Thank you, Cameron, for sharing your story. See a video of Heather's story on the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance website.