By Betsy Hnath
When I was approached to contribute to AgingCare, my initial response was to decline. I found it hard to believe that my experiences could possibly relate to those who regularly visit the site. My husband and I are in our early 40s, and we have enough trouble wrangling our three small, healthy children, let alone taking on the challenge of caring for anyone aging and in any stage of cognitive impairment.
But I do have the unique perspective of having been both a patient and a caregiver to someone navigating cancer treatment. I have seen, firsthand, the acute as well as the management phases of serious illness.
As I began to read the blogs of others on AgingCare, I noticed a familiar vein of feelings, concerns and frustrations that didn't discriminate based on age. Our young family has endured more in the last five years than many have experienced in a lifetime, and I hope you will allow me to share pieces of it with you here.
My husband, George, was diagnosed with stage III melanoma while we were in medical school.
Let me be clear. I say "we" even though I did not sit in the classes, nor did I earn the degree. We started that particular journey later in life and it was a team effort. I left my life to support his and stayed at home with our first born.
One of us is now a physician, but we went to medical school.
The aftermath and the isolation
After the shock of George's diagnosis, we tried our best to mentally and physically prepare ourselves for the surgeries to remove the cancer—and for the yearlong treatment to follow. George was in excellent shape for the fight; he was military strong and had always followed a healthy routine of diet and exercise.
Mentally, he was equally fit and confident. But, at that time, George wanted to keep things very private, so we told no one but our immediate families and very few friends. I respected his wishes but, for a talker like me, this was limiting and isolating.
The initial surgery involved gouging a large chunk of flesh out of his left shoulder, then shaving a piece of skin from his thigh to graft onto the large crater that was left behind. They also grabbed a few lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread.
Interferon is given to melanoma patients in two different stages. For the first month, it is given every day, for five days a week, at a high dosage. I had never seen George with the flu or food poisoning; he rarely even had a cold. With high dose Interferon, however, he was in bed, shivering, teeth chattering, his body aching for hours, every day for a month. Unfortunately, I have now become quite familiar with watching my loved ones suffer, but back then I was brand new to caring for anyone in that kind of need.
Taking refuge under running water
Balancing the care of our young daughter and the care of George left little time to care for myself. Fear and anxiety began taking over my mind and body, and I struggled to find the appropriate place and time to allow the growing swell of my inner emotions crack through. I began experiencing panic attacks, and without anyone to talk to about what was happening while enduring a long Maine winter, I felt trapped.
Maybe it's because, as a swimmer, water has always calmed me, or maybe it was because it was often the only private moment I could carve out during the day, but the shower became my refuge.
Sliding down the slick, fiberglass walls and sitting on the floor, knees pulled up against my chest as the water poured over my face, I was free to be afraid, free to cry. I didn't have to turn my back and wipe my face before my very perceptive two-year old daughter caught me, and inevitably began probing me for information about why I was "so sad."
I hugged myself; the warm water hugged me.