I was contacted in December by someone who wishes to share his family’s personal story. This truly inspiring account written by Cameron Von St. James demonstrates the power of hope. It has also inspired me to revitalise this blog. Thank you Cameron.
Standing by my Wife Through Her Cancer Journey
On November 21, 2005, my family’s lives changed forever. On this day, my wife Heather found out that she had malignant pleural mesothelioma. It had only been three months since we celebrated the birth of our first child, and instead of getting ready to celebrate our first Christmas together, our lives were heading into a chaotic period.
Before we even left the hospital, I knew that I would have an important job ahead. Caring for a cancer patient would be extremely difficult. After the doctor told us about mesothelioma, he gave us three places we could go for treatment. My wife was speechless after learning about her diagnosis; therefore, I made the decision to go to Boston under the care of Dr. David Sugarbaker, a renowned specialist in the treatment of mesothelioma.
During the next two months, we were living in a very chaotic situation. Heather and I both used to work before she was diagnosed with cancer; however, after her diagnosis, she could no longer work. As for me, I could only work part time. I had to care for my wife, travel to Boston, and take care of our daughter. I was so overwhelmed and often thought about the worst possible outcomes. I was terrified of losing my wife and being left alone to raise a daughter who would never really know her mother. On several occasions, I found myself breaking down and crying when I was alone. However, I never cried around Heather because I knew she depended on me to be strong for her.
We were blessed to have so many people to help us. Many people would give us both words of comfort, and financial assistance which we so desperately needed. I was so hesitant to accept their help at first, but as soon as I let go of my pride and started accepting the generous offers that were coming our way, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. If there is anything that I would tell people dealing with cancer, it would be to take any offers of help offered to them.
Caring for someone with cancer is difficult, and most people will experience a ton of emotions; however, it is important to not let the fear and anger take control. By continuing to have hope, life is easier to manage. It was the most difficult journey of either of our lives, but after Heather’s intense treatment involving surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she miraculously beat mesothelioma, a feat so rare it is almost unheard of.
After this ordeal, I decided to go back to school to study Information Technology. My experience as Heather’s caregiver helped prepare me. I graduated with high honors, and at my graduation, I was the student graduation speaker. During my graduation speech, I informed the audience that I would have never imagined giving a graduation speech five years prior; however, by having hope and never giving up, people can accomplish more than they have ever dreamed of accomplishing. Heather and Lily were in the audience to cheer me on, and that was the best reward of all.
Well here I am, in my Hereford den, poised to relate my adventures. But the black dog has sought to hound me yet again, and that is why my WordPress Tartan Trilogy is still wrapped in its box in my cerebral attic.
I have stolen the black dog metaphor from Winston Churchill because I cannot produce a better one. The hound appears from nowhere, hungry for your soul, thirsty for your life-blood. When you wake up and espy the beast lying at your bedside you cannot escape from him. Loyal as any hound, he follows you wherever you go, and finds his way into the core of your being. In many ways you become the black dog which is haunting you.
Shortly after my return from Scotland I learned that my grandmother had died. I thought that I was coping fairly well with my grief until the black dog bit my ankles and brought me down. Once I was on the ground with his hot breath pumping into my face, I could not get up again.
Over time I have learned that the black dog is not something to fight. He is stronger than I am, and could kill me with one snap of his jaws. Whenever I feel those iron jaws upon me, despite my instinct to fight him off I must reach out to caress and soothe him. As my fingers plunge into his black fur I know that I have to accept this unwelcome visitor. For an unspecified period I will be sharing my life with him – a semi-feral beast who would not be averse to eating me for dinner. If I allow him to stay and treat him with wary respect, I have a better chance of staying alive. For being no ordinary hound, eventually he will tire of me and wander away. The black dog likes to wander.
As I write, the black hound still lurks nearby but he appears to be retreating. As soon as I feel some space between the beast and myself I crawl onto my knees and examine my wounds. The bites have been severe this time, but they are not fatal.
I know that as soon as I regain some inner-strength and optimism he will slide away into the shadows. When I become master of myself, I am master of him also.
So the Tartan Trilogy may well appear fairly soon if the black dog continues his retreat. But right now he is still skulking between me and my mental archives, and I do not wish to lose my fingers.
I have not tended my Blog for a while because I’ve been waiting for a decidedly dark cloud to lift from my mind. It is taking its time – so much so that I have decided to wait no longer. This time of year has always stirred up a malevolent host of demons in my world. The darkening evenings actually seem to suck the life out of me, and I feel myself sinking into hopelessness. Real sink or swim stuff. Yet here I am, still alive enough to write.
When all is well I throw myself into daily life – making plans, embarking on courses, committing to dates and appointments, acting on ideas. Then depression strikes and within days all my excitement has died. I can feel the demon’s claw seizing my spirit and attempting to strangle it. Suddenly I cannot go out, I want to shut myself away from my friends, I lose the motivation to do the simplest tasks, and slowly things begin to fall apart.
So where does Trudy fit into this? My black and white choice is to find somebody to look after her while I wallow in misery, or to stumble onwards and continue caring for her myself. Unable to part with her, I’ve chosen to keep things as they are. The upshot is that I have to continue with a daily routine for Trudy’s sake. That means getting up at the usual time to feed her and take her outside for her “busy busy”. More often than not I meet a neighbour and we spend a few minutes engaging in chit-chat. Having a bouncy Labrador makes it impossible to hide away from the outside world. Thanks to Trudy, the skeleton of my normal routine has remained intact.
I have learned to lower my expectations during times of low mood. My current goal is to survive this rather bleak period and to continue to look after Trudy – not because I have to, but because I want to. The love I have for Trudy makes me glow inside, and even when my mood is dark and I can’t feel the warmth from that glow I know it’s still there. When Trudy bounds over after I’ve popped out for a few minutes, I can feel the glow stirring, and it gives me hope. Trudy is a gift, and the bond we have is a gift. Being on the receiving end of the unconditional love which just spills out of Labradors is very precious.
One of the great things about dogs is that they are so tangible. Trudy’s warm, soft fur has an instant feel-good effect – and that’s before I get to the silky ears, and the wagging tail. Research has proved that stroking animals can increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. In addition it can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and decrease pain. This is why there is an increasing number of Therapy dogs being assigned to hospices and retirement homes. In fact when I have visited such places myself in my capacity as a Speaker, I have witnessed the positive effects that Trudy has had on some of the patients. Trudy is synonymous with Life. Just being around her makes life livable.
Perhaps her ability to inject humour into my bleakest moments is the thing that strikes me most. If Trudy wants to play hide and seek with items from my laundry basket, she won’t take no for an answer no matter how depressed I feel! And the fast-beating thump of her tail has such an upbeat rhythm that my mouth smiles without me even thinking about it. Then there are the numerous feats of Labrador mischief that prove to me how priceless Trudy is, and before long I realise that I’m actually glad to be alive. Sometimes I surprise myself by my own spontaneous laughter – thanks to Trudy. Trudy ignites hope inside me, and hope is what stops people from drowning.
So despite the waves of gloom which permeate my days at the moment, I have the means to stay grounded, focussed and connected with other people. When I’m in the park with Trudy, fellow walkers see the hurtling Labrador before they see me. Even when they notice me and we strike up a conversation they are unaware of my inner struggle. This in itself is a true bonus. Antidepressants can set right the chemical imbalances in your brain, but having a dog like Trudy is a reason for living and thriving. Merely wanting to look after a dog takes your thoughts away from your own troubles. Actually having a dog reduces those troubles to the bare minimum. Trudy’s role as a Guide dog at this time is secondary to her therapeutic role. The very fact that she gives me so much makes me determined to do what I can for her. This has prevented me from caving in on myself.
Trudy provides me with so much more than freedom and mobility. I know she understands me as I do her, and it feels like we’re joined together by something magical. She is not just part of my life, she has become part of me.
Hetty is Britain’s first dual Guide dog and Seizure Alert dog http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/news/uks-first-dual-guide-dog-and-seizure-dog-graduates-with-new-owner/
Children with autism and OCD benefit from assistance dogs http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/giving/11DOGS.html?_r=2&partner=TOPIXNEWS&ei=5099
Therapy dogs in Psychiatric services http://drdeborahserani.blogspot.com/2010/10/therapy-service-dogs.html