Though I’m just as addicted to Facebook as (pretty much) everyone else, sometimes it can be like a punch to the stomach when there is devastating news. As my husband knows, there have been times when I am casually checking in to see what my friends are up to when I suddenly have tears streaming down my face. One of these times was learning that a friend from college, a father of two girls ages 5 and 2, had cancer. Anxiously following along as his wife, Jaymee, kept everyone updated for the past 6 months or so, it was a huge relief to learn that he had fought and survived Hodgkins Lymphoma after being diagnosed on June 4th, 2012. Now cancer-free, Jaymee was kind enough to share her story with Breezy Mama on what life was like once she found out her husband had cancer, telling their daughters, what she learned from her experience, his symptoms, treatment and more.
What was your reaction when you found out David had cancer?
It still takes my breath away to think about the moment. It was arguably the worst day of my life. It was a Monday. We had a babysitter with the girls that day, and I was out running errands when David called and asked if I could meet him at an ice cream shop down the street from our house. I thought this was a bit strange, but was excited to get to see him so early in the day. He was sitting at a table outside when I walked up. He was wearing scrubs [since he is a doctor] and dark-rimmed glasses, and as soon as I sat down he said the words, “I have Lymphoma.” I don’t remember anything he said after that. I couldn’t catch my breath and there was a pit in my stomach that I pray I won’t ever feel again. I just felt like I was falling out of the sky. I sort of remember him mentioning something about a biopsy and “the best oncologist in Seattle,” but that’s about it. There was no way to process what he had just said; it felt impossible. How could I live without him? What about our sweet girls? They would never recover if they lost their dad. These were the thoughts that just kept swirling around my head. Most certainly I scared the daylights out of all of the kids [at the ice cream shop] who just wanted to have an after-school treat, for Pete’s sake. I’m also fairly certain I also succeeded in completely freaking out our babysitter, and our poor sweet kids who just couldn’t understand what the heck was wrong with their mom when we finally got home. I think I called my mom and my sister and some dear friends, but it’s all a blur.
What symptoms did your husband have that made him go to the doctor in the first place?
His first symptom was a horrible rash that first appeared as large patches on his legs, and soon spread all over his arms, back, and chest. The rash was unbearably itchy and nearly impossible to treat. After months of appointments with dermatologist and allergist specialists, steroid shots, antihistamines, and incorrect diagnoses from a gluten allergy to generalized hives, David refused to accept what all of these specialists were telling him: that this was a condition that he might just have to live with for the rest of his life. David was convinced that this rash was systemic and he suspected that he had Lymphoma. Of course, this sounded a bit far-fetched to me, but one night after lifting weights David noticed painful swelling in his neck that suddenly made us worried. That same night David weighed himself and we were both shocked to find out that he had lost 10 pounds (this may not seem all that strange, but for someone who had been the exact same weight for more than twenty years, this was highly unusual). Even then, I have to admit that I wasn’t convinced there was something dangerously wrong. Cancer just seemed so far away from us. This was something that happened to other people, not to us! Thankfully, my husband always errs on the side of caution and on the very next day, David had his friend and colleague, Dr. Michael Burke, take a look at his neck. Dr. Burke ordered a CT scan right away, which revealed what David had feared and suspected all along.
How soon from the diagnosis was it until he started chemo?
David had his biopsy the following day, and started chemo roughly one week from then.
How many sessions of chemo did he have, at what point did it start and how often was it?
David had chemo two times per month for 6 months for a total of 12 treatments. I have never been so thankful that David is in his line of work. That he was able to get such a quick diagnosis, followed by an immediate biopsy and consultation with Dr. Oliver Press, Seattle’s leading Oncologist specializing in Lymphoma, was the greatest gift I could have hoped for. We have such an appreciation for how complicated and time-consuming it can be to even get an appointment to see a specialist, much less schedule treatments following diagnosis. When the dust has settled, we have vowed to do our part in making this process more stream-lined for folks who have had similar diagnoses, but may not have been so fortunate to have the connections that we have. The process and wait time is brutal, under the best of circumstances.
After the girls had gone to bed, we talked about it that very day that David was diagnosed and decided that we owed it to our girls to be truthful about what was going on. Especially for our oldest, Olive, who was soon-to-be five years old and quick on the uptake in terms of knowing that something was seriously wrong that day, we knew we needed to just tell it like it is. The next morning we explained to her that daddy had a “bug” (this was the term we used for any kind of illness) that was a real stinker. It wouldn’t go away with medicine or antibiotics; it needed SUPER-medicine called chemotherapy to make it go away, and it would take a long time. We told her that it would make daddy feel tired and possibly very sick, and that she wouldn’t be able to go swimming with him, or play chase with him, or get piggyback rides after work every night like she was used to. We told her that her dad might lose all of the hair on his head, face, and eyebrows, and that that might be scary at first, but that after all of the chemotherapy treatments, his hair would grow back, and they would be able to swim and run and play like they used to. Iris was almost 2 years old at the time and didn’t fully “get” what was going on, thankfully.
What did you find most helpful from others during this time?
Oh my goodness, I have never been so humbled and grateful in my life. David and I have discussed so many times how we feel that, despite how painful and scary this whole process has been, it has been the biggest blessing in our life. Our friends, family, and even acquaintances have shown up for us in ways that we could have never imagined. Our dear friends, Randi and Nate Pund, came up with this amazing idea to send “Team Dave” wrist bands to all of the people in our lives. This was a lifesaver during our darkest moments. Throughout the course of 6 months of chemotherapy treatments, David and I got continual Facebook notifications of photos of friends sporting their “Team Dave” wrist bands all over the world. It might sound insignificant, but for us it was a huge morale booster, and just made us feel like our friends were behind us in this. Unbeknownst to us, our friends and family had also donated money to pay for a private chef who came to our home and prepared healthy, organic meals three times a week over the course of David’s treatments which took such an enormous load off of my shoulders. Not to mention, the multitude of friends who juggled their very busy work schedules and sacrificed precious family time to watch our kids so I could be with David during his chemotherapy treatments. There are no words to express my gratitude to these wonderful people in our lives. We simply could not have survived this year without them.
You always seemed so strong on Facebook — were there ever times you broke down?
Oh gosh, yes. Don’t we all know that we preserve only our bravest and most flattering face for Facebook? 😉 I most definitely had my moments, especially in those first few weeks and months when we really weren’t sure what we were facing. It was an unspeakable fear; the fear of losing the person you love the most in the world. I give my husband so much credit for making it okay for me to cry and grieve when really, by all accounts, I should have been his rock during that scary time. He will argue that I was, but what I remember most clearly was the relief of letting that knot in my throat unravel when his eyes told me that it was okay. I have never known so much strength in another person.
Happily, I have to say that yes, we are getting close to that place. David is feeling well, and his hair is growing back, and we are back to our regular day-to-day routines and squabbles, which I welcome with open arms. Our girls can jump on their dad from the top ropes without fear of hurting the port catheter in his chest, and swimming, piggyback rides and wrestling matches are back with a vengeance. These are little things that we don’t take for granted anymore.
What has the experience taught you?
More than anything, this experience has taught me to appreciate every second of my life and especially the tiny, everyday things. Because nothing is for certain. Everything I have can be taken at any given moment, so I have to live right now. I might forget temporarily in the hustle and bustle of life with two young kids, and in the midst of tantrums and way-too-early morning wake-up calls, but at the end of the day when I kiss my girls goodnight, I feel the deepest gratitude. It’s an appreciation that I could never have felt without having almost lost everything.
I would just want them to know that they are not alone. It is a sickening, indescribable feeling. But there is hope, and support all around them. Even if they don’t have the incredible fortune of having the immediate support system that I had, there are so many organizations out there who offer support and services to help families through this. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Go hug your kids and/or your significant other right now! And even when you have had the worst possible day, at the end of it all just remember that ultimately, it’s gonna be okay. As long as those people that you love so much are waking up right alongside you, life is good.