The Fallible Caregiver Series: Fighting to Turn Tragedy into Triumph
When I got remarried in 2014, I never imagined my new blissful, hope-filled chapter would look like this. Several years before, I went through a grueling divorce that wrecked me for at least a year. Actually, the toxic marriage had wrecked me some years before the divorce.
A father and a man of faith
I didn’t want the divorce but couldn’t cohabitate with my ex. But we had two kids, and it tore me up to lose living as a family unit and being my kids' full-time dad. I’m a man of faith, and even though I had gone to seminary and pastored at two churches, the pain and anger broke me to pieces and often I coped in unhealthy ways, like drinking too much.
But slowly, as I got involved with my church, support groups, and giving the pain, fear, and worry up to God, the pieces of life came back together. I learned how to stand on my own and how to become a new man.
The best wife I've ever had
I didn’t even attempt to date for three years. I needed to heal and become that whole man again. I didn’t want to bring unnecessary baggage into a new relationship (which, of course, I still did, to a degree). After waiting through those three years, I met Rebekah, my new love. She was 25, and I was 35. Yep, I scored there!
I like to tell Rebekah that she’s the best wife I’ve ever had. She is a remarkable woman of faith, love, and of kindness. She loves me terribly, warts and all.
The diagnosis turned her life upside down
Rebekah grew up mostly in Southern Oregon; I grew up in Southern California. We didn’t know each other. At 23, Rebekah was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. This obviously rocked her young world and turned her life upside down. Plans for college got put on hold as she had to explore treatment options and how to live life as a young woman with cancer.
Rebekah ended up having a double mastectomy, followed by chemo and hormone therapy. She fought the cancer aggressively with the double mastectomy because she was intent to ensure the cancer never came back. After one year of treatment, her doctors declared her cancer-free. Following the advice of a dear friend, another older cancer warrior, Rebekah chose to live life again. Life seemed on pause since the day she heard the diagnosis. Pushing the un-pause button, she took a leap of faith, packed her little car, and moved down to Southern California. That’s when we met in 2013.
Cancer hits again
Seven months into our new wedded bliss, my dad called me up and told me doctors had diagnosed him with cancer. Stomach cancer. He was 69, recently retired, and excited to start a new chapter of his life. He hid most of the details from my sister and me, but after reading some of his medical papers, we learned he had stage 4 stomach cancer. The news hit me hard as my dad and I were close. He was always my rock through my season of brokenness.
One month after my dad’s diagnosis, Rebekah, my new beautiful young bride, at 26, was re-diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.
An MBC recurrence
The cancer had metastasized to Rebekah’s lungs, kidney, liver, bones, and at least nine tumors in her brain. One oncologist with a terrible bedside manner, and without us even asking him, predicted she had four to six months to live—and that was with treatment.
Just a couple of years before, we had both gone through terrifying dark valleys of brokenness, and by the time we got married, the future had finally looked clear and hopeful again—even exciting. When we learned about Rebekah’s new diagnosis, the future went black again.
After Rebekah’s re-diagnosis, that first year felt like we lived in a dark washing machine. We felt lost, confused, angry, and afraid — okay, terrified. Most people don’t really know what cancer is, let alone stage 4 cancer. We heard it all from well-intentioned people: “You’ll be okay, just have faith,” “Stay positive, you’ll be fine,” “You know they have a cure for cancer, they’re just hiding it,” and all the “Just eat this (fill in the blank) and it will kill the cancer.” I call these people Well-Intentioned Dragons. They often mean well but sting you with their tail and do more harm than good.
So yes, we felt very alone.
A remarkable spirit
I told you Rebekah is a remarkable person. She would not accept that diagnosis and her spirit rallied to fight. Thankfully, we got her admitted to the City of Hope cancer hospital in Los Angeles. They attacked her cancer aggressively with 15-rounds of full brain radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. We found great comfort in the doctors and staff at the City of Hope.
I’m writing this nearly seven years after that initial re-diagnosis and Rebekah is currently in what they call a near-complete remission. To be sure, along the way we’ve had many trials with new tumors, new surgeries, new chemo-cocktails, new radiations, new doctors, new medications, new insurances, new side-effects, and even a clinical trial injecting millions of CAR-T cells into her brain.
A caregiver husband
About two years into her re-diagnosis, I realized that I no longer thought of myself as just a husband; I was also a caregiver. I was — I am -a caregiver husband.
Caregivers are often the unsung heroes on the cancer journey. I’m okay with that, though. I’m not the one living with a life-threatening illness, or to speak closer to cold reality, an incurable diagnosis. Yet I’ve learned that caregiving comes with its own unique emotional struggles, escape fantasies, and exhausting frustrations and fears.
Over these last seven years, we learned how to stand again, walk again, and even run again. We (usually) enjoy life and live happily married. We discovered our life purpose in helping other warriors on the cancer journey. We started our company, Rebekah’s Hope, where we help others find genuine hope through our books, apparel, courses, and our documentary, A Brave Hope. None of this would be the case apart from our faith in God and in a unique way, apart from cancer.
My hope is that our story can help
In my articles to come, I plan to write for those who need hope, particularly for the caregivers. I want to talk about all these emotions, struggles, and temptations, and then I want to share with you how I learn to cope and even rise above these challenges. I am calling these articles, The Fallible Caregiver because while I get it right a lot, I also screw up at times and blow it. More than I wish, I feel like I’m at the end of my tether and that’s when I break down. I don’t have it all together. But as the saying goes, I hope to just be one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread. And by God’s grace, I’ve found a good deal of bread.
My final thought is that I want to make you a promise. I promise to be real and honest with you. That means I will skate as close to that cold reality as I can as it relates to being a caregiver husband to someone with stage 4 breast cancer seven years in. My hope in writing these articles, and writing with brutal honesty, is that you will feel less alone, feel more hopeful, and find some practical tools to run your own race with joy.
Have you ever changed your treatment regimen because you were experiencing side effects?