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Surviving Day-by-Day When Life Gets Tough

April 4, 2018

There is something raw about finding out that one of the people you love most in the world could die. Sure, I know we will all die one day. But, this is a bit different.  When we got the news from the doctor in the Fall that my spouse has advanced esophageal cancer, a cancer I’d never even heard of before, it sent our world spinning.

My husband, Jeff, started his chemo-radiation (which is doing chemo and radiation at the same time) for 5 weeks back in November. He fared quite well throughout until he got to the last week. The compounded effect of the treatment began to wreak havoc on his body. His heart rate was going through the roof when he went from sitting to standing. He faced severe dehydration because he couldn’t keep even the smallest amount of food or drink down. And, the doctors discovered a blood clot in his lungs.

The heaviness of his situation reached a breaking point when he collapsed onto the kitchen floor one day when I was upstairs and he smashed his head off the ceramic tile. When I came running, I could see as I stood at the top of the stairs, he was lying unconscious by the fridge with our children’s artwork lying on the floor around him. In an attempt to stop his fall, he must have reached for the fridge. But his efforts were in vain, and he was too weak. All he could do was drag his fingertips along the surface of the front of the fridge before he went crashing to the floor.

I called 9-1-1 and he was hospitalized for 5 days that month. This was not long before Christmas. By mid- January, he began to get stronger. Jeff was at the gym lifting weights and doing cardio. He was gearing up for a surgery to remove most of his esophagus and stomach, making a small stomach pouch in his chest.

His surgery took place on January 31, 2018, by Toronto General Thoracic Surgeon, Dr. Gail Darling. We arrived at the hospital for 6 a.m. Watching him be wheeled away for his surgery, I clutched my heart and just stood in this empty hospital stall, praying, knowing there is a chance this might not go well, desperately wanting this to be the start of our new chapter. But, just not knowing.

When I saw Jeff’s surgeon around 3:30 p.m. that day, she told me the surgery was now over and it went well.  I jumped up and hugged her. She hugged me back even tighter.

When I finally got to see Jeff over an hour later, he was in the ICU where he would stay for a while. He had about 20 tubes coming out of him. He was really groggy and in pain. The kind of pain where you can barely express it because even trying to move or talk makes it hurt even more. I just sat with him in silence and held his hand.

Here began our journey to make him stronger.  I stayed downtown for the time Jeff was at the hospital, with my Mom taking care of the kids. Each day, I helped him with his rehabilitation efforts. I would do anything to help him heal and he was determined to get well. Jeff worked so hard.

A few weeks later, we received the pathology report. This is the summary of all the ‘stuff’ they took out of Jeff during the surgery that they biopsied.  At this stage, the hope is that the chemo and radiation prior to the surgery got all the cancer and this surgery was to try to ensure it didn’t come back. This kind of cancer has a high recurrence rate.

Jeff and my eyes raced through the report, seeing negative biopsies for many organs. Yes! Negative is good. This means no cancer. Then we got to the section on the lymph nodes. One of the lymph nodes tested positive for cancer and there was also cancer showing up in the blood vessels as well as scant tumour cells at the site of the primary cancer in the esophagus.  We were crushed. Yes, this ‘stuff’ is taken out, but it does leave the question for us and doctors about what might be in Jeff’s body that wasn’t taken out. All it takes is one microscopic cancer cell somewhere to start up.  And we were told by Jeff’s doctors that if the cancer comes back, it is incurable.  This message hit heavy like a hammer to my heart.

When we look at our girls, we feel scared. We know that we are on a healing journey now. And I really do pray this is all behind us. But, I know there is a chance it is not.  My mind sometimes goes to places of ‘what if’ about the future and it scares me so deeply to my core.  But, then I remind myself ‘what if’ can also mean what if this is all behind us. What if we really do live happily ever after together and have learned some, albeit painful, but important life lessons from this experience.

Today, I am choosing to focus on the now. Taking life day by day. To use my lessons learned through my brain injury around mindfulness, gratitude, even patience as Jeff continues to heal, to be kind to ourselves and to not become overwhelmed by the possible scenarios.

What are my takeaways from this experience thus far? First, the importance of self-care including daily exercise, meditation, proper nutrition and talking to friends/family as a part of staying sane in the midst of this crazy, turbulent time.  It is often when we are the busiest that we need self-care the most.

Another lesson is to not just be open to help, but to ask for it.  This is definitely tough for many people to do. But what I now see is that people really care, whether it is about us and our work projects or our personal lives, and they want us to let them in.  And, feeling supported is the best way to set ourselves and others up for success.

We all have our stories. Through this journey, I have had the opportunity to hear from many people who are going through stuff.  We all face highs and lows. We all feel love, fear and pain at some time or another. We can choose to deal with this ourselves and close off from the world with our heads down, or open ourselves up to others. I choose to tell our story. To stand in our imperfections and feel vulnerable, hoping that by sharing our journey, it could help others who are struggling with something in their own lives. To put a spotlight on what is most important because I know we all get busy in our lives and it is so tempting to switch onto autopilot mode and take what’s most important for granted. And maybe, just maybe, by sharing our story, my heart will heal a bit more too.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Linda Ljucovic permalink
    April 5, 2018 1:38 pm

    Thanks for sharing so openly. Reading your story reminds me about how I tend to close myself off when I am going through something rough and how important it is to open up more. xo

    • April 5, 2018 7:48 pm

      Thanks Linda for reading my blog. This situation has caused me to reflect a lot and I am always glad to hear when my articles make people pause for a moment and reflect, too. Take care! Careyann

  2. Jane E. McGarvey permalink
    April 22, 2018 6:07 pm

    I am one of the many who were honored to be able to help in a small way as you and your family travel this path together. I will be having surgery on my lymph nodes, at Toronto General, on the 30th. Cancer I thought was gone had in fact travelled. I am optimistic that the MRIs and Ctscans have given us a complete picture and that stage 3 is as far as my diagnosis will go.
    You have inspired me to live each day fully and to be among my friends and family, knowing the togetherness and openness is as good for them as it is myself.
    I wish Jeff, you and the girls continued strength and hope. There seems to be oh so much happening in your lives all at once that I imagine being able to meditate and have a grateful heart can be challenging, though keys to daily survival.
    Much love, jane

    • April 23, 2018 9:01 am

      Jane, thank you so much for your help and love throughout our journey. Also, thank you for bravely sharing your own situation with us. We were saddened to hear of the challenges you have faced and continue to face. We will be praying for you and thinking of you on the 30th and beyond as you continue your healing. Sending you lots of love and gratitude for everything you have done from our family, and for the amazing role model you have been to our eldest daughter.

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