A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at hipstermomblog.com
Navigating the scary path of a cancer caregiver possibly becoming the patient with cancer.
I have been annoying my husband about seeing a dermatologist for years. When he entered his 40's, I started subtly nagging. Each time I went to see the dermatologist, I would gently suggest that he schedule an appointment for a routine scan too just to make sure that everything was okay.
To my untrained eye, he didn't have anything that looked like it needed to be checked out, but I believe in the “better safe than sorry” philosophy of life. With a Grandmother who died from melanoma, I was paranoid about my skin. Yet my husband preferred to just let things be, and so for years, he managed to avoid the dermatologist.
When I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, I stopped the nagging and surrendered myself to the care of my hematology-oncologist and my husband. For months, my husband was my full-time caregiver, shuttling me from treatment appointments and weekly blood tests, to scheduling scans and filling prescriptions. He physically hauled me off the bathroom floor when I collapsed after violent vomiting fits, and stood outside my shower door with a towel, ready to quickly remove the waterproof cuff that we used to keep my PICC line dry and sterile.
He kept the home fires burning with our three small children while holding down a full-time job, waking up early to make school lunches, and staying up late to review homework. He listened to my fears, held me when I cried and made sure that I stayed hydrated, medicated and sane. I would not have made it through treatment without him.
When treatment ended and recovery began—I started nagging him again. I didn't stop at the dermatologist though, I wanted him to have a colonoscopy and more blood work. His health became my top priority. I needed him to be healthy and not just because I needed him in his capacity as a caregiver, but because I needed to know that our children would at least one healthy parent. I learned that life could throw us curveballs and when they did, it usually affected me, so he needed to be the stable one in their life.
So when I saw my dermatologist over the summer, I decided to stop asking him to make the appointment and made one for him. As with many dermatologists, the earliest appointment wasn't for another three months, but I booked the time slot anyway and sent him a calendar invite. I insisted that he not cancel, no matter what else came up during that time, including another national COVID-19 related lockdown. We were both convinced the appointment would be routine, and so I stayed home when he went for his full body scan.
Distractedly, I sent him a text that morning to check-in and he replied, “she found something.” Shock, then disbelief followed. When he finally called me, he said that she saw something on his back that she wanted to remove ASAP. She said it was probably nothing, but well, we all know that probably nothing always has the potential to turn into something. Dazed, my husband managed to pick up a canceled appointment with a plastic surgeon, and he scheduled the mole removal for the following morning. It was an appointment I didn't miss, and suddenly our roles reversed and I became the caregiver.
If I'm being honest, I suck as a caregiver. For less than 24 hours of post-mole removal, I catered to his every need. I fluffed his pillow and prepared his meals, I let him recover in bed and made sure the children were taken care of. I bought him a new comic book to lift his spirits and some chocolate to feed the fear. But I also made him walk the dog and after two days off of work, I told him it was time to get back to the office.
I couldn't handle seeing him lying in bed, his fragility a stark reminder that I have no control over which one of us gets sick. As much as I've been working on keeping him healthy and strong, at the end of the day, I have little choice or say in the matter.
For the past five weeks, we skirted around the cloud that was hanging over our heads, waiting for the pathology report. We know better than to tell ourselves that everything will be okay until we know it's okay. So we focused our energies elsewhere, in trying to keep routine to our day while keeping our fears to ourselves. Once again, we kept our children in the dark as we waited for the results.
This morning, as we entered the first full day of another COVID-19 related national lockdown, we got the call that the pathology report came back benign. I let out the breath I've been holding for the past five months, thanked God for the good news, and started nagging about the colonoscopy next.