I knew that the wedding vows meant in sickness and in health and embraced that promise with all of my heart. I never expected that I’d be taking on that role early on and for a life-threatening reason. On November 21, 2005 a bomb was dropped on my wife, Heather, and I. The holiday season was around the corner. Our precious daughter, Lily, was only three months old and we couldn’t wait to share this magical time with her. Our marriage was still young and life was good with a bright future before us until the doctor delivered a devastating blow. Heather had cancer, a rare and aggressive form known as malignant pleural mesothelioma. The name alone was terrifying. On that day, I found out what it meant to be a caregiver for someone I loved in the battle for her life. Reeling at the news, I had to put myself aside, hold her hand, and be everything that Heather needed to win her fight.
In an instant, our whole world was turned upside down. I instantly became Heather’s support system. While she sat in shock, trying to process the terrifying diagnosis, choices were thrust upon me. The doctor explained what her disease meant and the need for treatment. He started laying out the options: the local university hospital, the regional hospital, or Dr. David Sugarbaker, a doctor who specialized in treating mesothelioma in Boston. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that we needed the best, someone who was an expert in attacking the cancer that had taken hold of my wife. It would mean major upheaval in our lives in order to go long distance to Boston for treatments. However, it also meant the best possible chance to save Heather. She was too shocked and terrified to make the decision so I made it for us, putting the love of my life at the top of my priority list. We were headed to Boston.
The next two months marked a period of total disorder in our lives. Everything was up in the air, nothing was definite, and our routines were non-existent. I had to cut my hours to part time and Heather could not work at all as she concentrated on getting better. That left me to figure out how to juggle our finances, care for Lily, run our household, and attend to all of Heather’s needs. There were many moments when I was terrified, fearful of what might happen, how we would find a way to make ends meet, and dealing with the prospect of a life without Heather. There were times when I was overcome with emotion, face buried in a towel, sobbing on the kitchen floor. It seemed like too much for one man to bear. Then the worst would pass, I’d pick myself up again and take a look at my wife. She was the true warrior and champion, going through a fierce struggle, facing treatments and a disease that was ravaging her body. I never broke down in front of my wife and told myself to be strong for her, no matter how difficult that would be.
We were graced by God with a supportive group of family and friends, people that banded together and helped us at the drop of a hat. They helped us in every way imaginable, from giving us financial assistance to pull us through, to bringing food, to taking rounds with Lily, or simply giving us a shoulder to lean on. I can’t even begin to thank all of the people who stood by us in this time of struggle. My advice to anyone else facing cancer is to accept help when it is given. You are not alone and should never try to bear this crushing burden by yourself. Take the hand that reaches out to you and let someone pick you up. You’ll find it easier to go on.
This will be the hardest thing you’ve ever dealt with in your life. It’s something beyond your control and bigger than you. You’ll have times when you are angry and afraid. You’ll hate watching someone you love feeling so sick. There will be days when you want to hide. Accept that you are human and you’ll have your bad days. So will your loved one. When those difficult times arise, find someone you can count on to talk to or take a break and recharge. Above all else, hold onto hope. Hope is the greatest weapon you have to fight off despair as a caregiver.
It was a long, uphill journey for Heather and I, with months of mesothelioma surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Seven years later, she is cancer-free. Dealing with cancer stretched us to the limits and taught us how capable we are. You will find you are powerful beyond measure as well if you’re forced to take up this challenge. Never stop fighting for the ones you love, and you’ll see just how much you can accomplish as well.
Cameron Von St. James is the husband of Heather Von St. James, a mesothelioma survivor. Cameron and Heather fought together when Heather was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma three months after the birth of their only child, Lily. After months of treatment, Heather was pronounced free of cancer, and now both she and Cameron work together with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to bring awareness and support to those currently fighting mesothelioma today. They live in Roseville, MN, with Lily who is now seven.