I Never Expected to Be the Caregiver with Cancer

April 18, 2021
Marissa Holzer
Marissa Holzer

Marissa is a 40-something "flattie" in sunny SoCal living with metastatic breast cancer, her boyfriend (and high school sweetheart) and the memory of her not-so-mini schnauzer, Heidi, who was taken too soon by canine lymphoma. She enjoys reading, stress baking and roller skating. She hopes to inspire others with her stories about life with cancer.

The month of March has not been kind to this person living with metastatic breast cancer. Here, she recalls what it has been like to become the caregiver with cancer.

Historically, March has always been an eventful month for me. Throughout the years the following are just some of the life-changing events that have occurred in March, some good and some not so good.

I bought my first house with Josh, my boyfriend, in the month of March. I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in March. I bought my first brand-new car in March. My last living grandparent died in March. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced my “retirement”, happened in March. I switched treatments in March. The list goes on, and I just had really hoped that March of 2021 would be a less eventful March.

And while it was for me, it was not less eventful for those I love. Their March events have turned me into the caregiver I never expected to be. I’ll start with my miniature Schnauzer, Heidi. In about the middle of March, Heidi had a terrible episode of diarrhea followed by vomiting one night. We did what all dog parents do and boiled some chicken and rice and tried to help her feel better. She refused to eat or drink anything.

Heidi’s vet happens to love Schnauzers and owns a few of her own and graciously saw us on short notice. She gave Heidi some fluids, an antibiotic and a probiotic. There seemed to be a little bit of improvement for a few days but then her symptoms would return. Our poor girl just didn’t seem to be bouncing back. This warranted another trip to the vet: more fluids and some blood work to rule things out. Heidi’s labs came out normal, no pancreatitis, nothing unusual. The suspicion was Heidi possibly had giardia and we needed a stool sample. Up until the need for the stool sample, Heidi had been like a diarrhea faucet.

The minute I started to follow her around to obtain the sample, she wouldn’t go. I was finally successful a couple of days later only to have the sample come back as negative. Heidi’s symptoms had still not resolved, and her appetite had not returned. Yet another trip to the vet for an ultrasound where they discovered she has enlarged lymph nodes in her stomach and a thickening of her intestines consistent with lymphoma. As I awaited the call with the results of her biopsy confirming Heidi has lymphoma, I could physically feel the PTSD of my own diagnosis in March seven years ago and all the stress that comes along with a cancer diagnosis.

As if that wasn’t enough, about a week into Heidi’s illness I had one of those early morning phone calls no one ever wants to get. Josh had been in a motorcycle accident as he had left for work that morning. He was hit by a car less than a quarter of a mile from our house. As I dropped everything to run out to the street to find him on the ground bleeding from his mouth and unable to get up so many emotions were running through me. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance and later that day released to me with compression fractures of two of his vertebrae. The first week after his accident was the hardest. I had to physically lift him up if he was lying down or sitting down.

He can’t bend, lift or twist in his giant contraption of a brace, which requires me to do a lot of extra running around for his needs as well as Heidi’s and my own. My watch tracked over 20,000 steps in one day. Josh is basically out of commission for three months, at minimum, while he heals. He tells me he feels bad asking for me to do ordinary things for him, such as helping him to shower and get dressed, all the things we do each day and take for granted. He says in my seven years of living with metastatic breast cancer I have never asked him to do this much for me, even after my surgeries.

Honestly, I’m just thankful I’m well enough to take care of both of them. They are my everything. They are what keeps me going each day. I do feel myself losing faith more and more as the days go by. I wonder where I have gone wrong and why so many challenging events have happened in my life and what is it about March. I know I shouldn’t go to that place. I try my hardest to live one day at a time, grateful for what I do have. I’m trying to remember to take time for myself and take good care of myself so I can be strong for Josh and Heidi. They need me more than ever right now, even if I am the caregiver with cancer.

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