by Rob Harris, Caregiver
Early in my journey as a Caregiver Advocate, I was interviewed for an article being written for MSNBCTodayShow.com. Though I was flattered by the request, I was surprised by the topic of the piece. The reporter focused on men that dump their spouses and partners once they learn their mate has been diagnosed with cancer.
I had spoken to many caregivers prior to that request. Never had I encountered a “runner.” Apparently I was naive. I was also shocked. I couldn’t believe that someone would abandon their loved one in their greatest time of need. The thought of it really bothered me.
I fell in love with my wife many years ago. And I fell hard! The minute I saw her from a distance, I told a person I had met just minutes prior that I don’t know who this woman is, but I’m going to marry her. I’m far from a great prognosticator, but fortunately, my prediction came true.
We fell in love and were married on November 9, 1980.
From that day forward, we’ve loved each other.
Like many couples, life has a way of interfering. Careers, children, home, family, friends and other outside influences are all ingredients that bombard a happy, in-love couple…and for us, cancer.
In 1990, my wife discovered the pain she was experiencing in her left knee was actually Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Yes, we were frightened. My wife became a patient, I became a caregiver, and for several months, our lives were turned upside down. The great news is the cancer was caught early (Stage 1) and we were given a 90 percent chance of survival. Let’s face it, when we hear there’s only a ten percent chance of rain, who’s going to carry an umbrella?
Though my wife went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, all with their debilitating side effects, we never considered this to be more than a monumental inconvenience. Our lives changed somewhat, but the word “death” never entered the picture, at least not for me.
The results were as expected. My wife was told she beat the cancer and was informed that if it didn’t return within the following five years, she could consider herself no longer in remission. She could confidently tell others she was cured.
We returned to our suburban lifestyle. We loved each other deeply, but were we “in love,” as we had been when when we recited our wedding vows? Truth be told, probably not. There is a difference between loving each other and being in love, isn’t there? One is a comfortable, secure feeling while the other is much more vibrant and intense.
On May 11, 2006, we realized our doctors had been mistaken sixteen years prior. On this day, my wife and I were informed that the area where her original cancer had manifested itself, her left knee, was now housing a new and much more aggressive form of cancer known as a sarcoma. She was told her odds of survival were a meager 28 percent and her life expectancy would measured not in years, but in months.
That changed everything!
Were we afraid? Absolutely! Did we panic? Though not one to admit to weakness, I can say I quietly but definitely did.
Did I think of abandoning my wife? Not in a million years! In fact, what it did was give me an incredible wake-up call.
I realized how absolutely critical my wife was to me and, at a time when some other men run for the hills, I fell in love with my wife all over again.
What were MY symptoms? The world once again revolved around my wife. She was all I could think of. All I wanted to do was please her, make her well, make her happy and be beside her for the rest of our days on earth.
I realized that I had taken life for granted. What cancer taught me was how much I missed being in love, being happy and making the most out of each day we had together.
As for her form of cancer, it was the Mt. Everest of mental and physical endurance. We underwent nine surgeries, a leg amputation, three visits to intensive care, two events in which my wife was in critical condition, one heart stoppage where she passed away in front of me and thankfully returned, and most of a year in the hospital.
Fortunately, my company allowed me to work from wherever an Internet hookup could be found. Therefore, I lived in the hospital with my wife. We never spent a night apart except when she was in intensive care and during those nights I slept in the intensive care waiting room. Otherwise, I was in her hospital room every single day and night she was there.
You might think that would drive most people crazy, right?
It was the best thing that ever happened to us. It was just us…my wife…me…and, oh yeah, an army of doctors, nurses, nurse techs and the rest of the medical community that visited our room. We got to know each other all over again through long, intense conversations, planning for our future after cancer, and looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together.
Although vomiting and other medical maladies are not the most romantic of activities, it was all a labor of love. Everything my wife experienced was shared. No, I was not the patient. I did not ingest chemotherapy, anesthesia, etc. However, I was alongside for everything and insisted on cleaning her whenever she became ill.
So, how can one be in love in a hospital? How does one show intimacy in a room no bigger than most bathrooms at home?
The simple answer is: We couldn’t.
What we did learn was that intimacy does not have to be purely physical. We became more emotionally and mentally intimate than ever before.
And we made the most of every single day.
After I almost lost my wife when her heart decided to stop beating, we made a vow and created an acronym that we live by today, years later.
What does “ESD” stand for? “Every Stinkin’ Day!” We vowed we will live “Every Stinkin’ Day” as if it’s our last day on earth. We spent hours asking each other what gave us the most pleasure, what attracted us to each other and why we initially fell in love. We dissected our early years and determined the following were incredibly important to us; smiling, laughing and committing anonymous random acts of kindness toward others.
Of course, I was not the one throwing up, dizzy, feverish or enduring a tremendous amount of pain through surgeries that seemed to take place one after another, like airplanes waiting for take-off on a crowded runway.
Though my wife and I conceived of the ideas, it was mostly up to me to orchestrate the deeds. However, I also used my independent ingenuity when my wife was sad and needed to be cheered.
In December of 2006, we were supposed to be released from the hospital in time to celebrate Christmas at home. We were really excited. My wife loves Christmas, getting the house decorated, buying and wrapping presents, cooking, having family over for dinner and playing Christmas music. She gets so excited her inner child becomes visible on her face. I love that about her.
So you can imagine how upset she was to learn that she would be spending the holiday in the hospital due to her failing kidneys and their inability to clear the chemo from her system.
One morning, while Cindy was sound asleep, I told the nurses I would be gone for an hour. I drove to a local Target store. While there, I bought everything imaginable for Christmas. Fortunately, my wife is a very sound sleeper, especially in the hospital. She never stirred as I went to work on the room. I hung tinsel and Christmas lights everywhere. I wrapped our hospital room door in wrapping paper and made it look like a gift box. I even included the bow. Her intravenous (IV) pole, which hung her saline solution, antibiotics and other paraphernalia was converted into a makeshift Christmas tree. I surrounded it with tinsel, hung blinking Christmas lights, ornaments and candy canes.
I played a holiday CD in my computer and slowly increased the volume. When she awoke, she was in disbelief. Nurses and doctors heard the music in our room and stopped by to satisfy their curiosity. Each was provided with a candy cane. Before long, our room was packed with admirers. The smile on my wife’s face is something that will be branded into my memory for the rest of my life. Her inner child was never more visible and apparent. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
If we couldn’t be home for Christmas, Christmas was going to be celebrated in our hospital room!
That is what being in love is. Doing the unexpected for no other reason than to give joy to the person that is most important to you.
This is just one example of many in which we share our intimacy and passion for each other.
Cancer brought Cindy and me closer together than we ever thought possible. For that, we will always be grateful. We often state that cancer is the best thing that ever happened to us. It changed our perspectives and lives forever, and we couldn’t be happier.
And yes, we live Every Stinkin’ Day together as if it’s our last.
In concert with his Amazon.com #1 bestselling book, “We’re In this Together: A Caregiver’s Story”, Rob Harris is a caregiver advocate, radio show co-host, speaker and blogger. He’s a self-taught caregiver to his wife, a two-time cancer survivor. Excerpts of his book were recognized as the “featured story” in Coping With Cancer Magazine (May/June, 2013). His organization, Robcares, communicates with those in need worldwide through social media, speaking engagements, and interviews. Rob’s website, www.robcares.com offers valuable information, resources, videos, and links to his social media locations and so much more. He can be reached directly at Rob@robcares.com.