Part One: Becoming a Caregiver
On April 12th, 2017, I volunteered to drive my dad to an appointment with his gastroenterologist. My mom was getting ready to retire that week, and she had to be at work to make sure the transition went smoothly. My brother had to work, too, but I had just moved back to Illinois from Colorado the previous week and my schedule was wide open.
He was in the back for a few hours, and I didn’t really know what to expect time-wise since I haven’t had an endoscopy before. It was my dad’s first one, so he didn’t really know what to expect either. I asked the nurse at the desk how he was doing after a few hours because I was a little worried that something happened. She reassured me that he was fine, and that he would be finished and in recovery soon.
About 30 minutes later, they called me back so I could hang out with him while the anesthesia wore off. The first thing he said was, “I feel GREAT! I just took the best nap of my life. I’ve never slept like that before!”
I told him that he was given the same thing Michael Jackson used to use recreationally, and we both chuckled.
His doctor came in, introduced himself to me (he’s known my dad for years), and cut to the chase, “Well, I don’t have good news. We found a tumor on your esophagus and I’m pretty convinced it’s cancer. We took a biopsy and will send it off for testing to be sure, but I’m going to refer you to a cardiothoracic surgeon so we can get moving on it ASAP.”
Neither of us cried. We were too stunned. When he asked my dad if he had a preference a surgeon, we both told him (at the same time), “Just tell us who the best is”. We scheduled an appointment that afternoon, and were in to see the surgeon the following week.
When we got in the car, we both looked at each other with the look. The look that says, “This is all a joke, right?” A few minutes into our drive back, he said, “Well, I guess this means I better get my affairs in order”, and it pissed me off. I told him never to say that to me ever again. We were going to fight this no matter what, and he didn’t need to be thinking that kind of bullshit.
Telling my mom was hard. My dad was just as direct as his doctor, and I know she appreciated that. No one wants you to sugar coat, over-explain, or confuse things when you’re telling them some of the worst news they’ll ever hear. We were all at lunch, and we all cried. We were all so terrified. We had to tell my brother next, and my dad didn’t want to tell him over the phone, so we waited until the next day when we were planning on going to the condo he lived at.
We were all together in the living room, and Johnny was on the couch when our dad told him, “You know that doctor’s appointment I had? They found a tumor and they think it’s cancer. We won’t know for sure until the results come back, but he was pretty confident.”
I saw Johnny cry for the first time. He didn’t say much, but what he said was what we all felt, “I love you and we’ll do whatever we have to do.”
The next few weeks were crazy. Appointment after appointment, followed by so much information that we didn’t know how to process. Thankfully, one of my besties has a sister that is a Physician’s Assistant in Oncology. She sent us so many resources and helped us understand what everything meant, and we are forever grateful for her. In a way, she was our second opinion on things, and it gave our family confidence in my dad’s treatment plan.
I spent every waking minute of my life after his diagnosis researching, reading, thinking, over-thinking, and planning. I subscribed to cancer news through medical journals, learned a million new terms and studied very hard to understand them. I called my best friends and cried. Sometimes, I could only cry. They understood. No one rushed me to move through the process. Everyone was so kind and so patient. I kept it a secret from everyone else, because that is what my dad wanted. He didn’t want anyone to feel bad for him, and he didn’t want every conversation to revolve around cancer. I don’t blame him, but sometimes, I think he missed out on feeling how REALLY loved he was by so many people.
I made the decision to get my CNA license and to start taking the prerequisites for nursing school. My dad was scheduled for an esophagogastrectomy, which is an ultra-complicated procedure that involves removing the diseased part of the esophagus and pulling up the remainder of the stomach into the chest. His activity was restricted for 9 weeks after surgery, and he had two 12-inch scars over his sternum and flank areas. Brutal. But he was an absolute champ through all of it, and I saw how truly stubborn he was during all of that. You have to be stubborn if you’re going to fight something like cancer.
I didn’t tell anyone in my CNA class that I was planning on taking care of my dad at home, but I worked really hard to learn EVERYTHING I could: j-tube care, wound care, listening to lung sounds, checking vitals, dressing changes, and helping with ambulation. It was all very new to me, but I was determined to be a master of it by the time he was up and at ‘em again. My new goal was to take care of my dad, support him through his treatments, be his advocate and confidant, and never let him forget how much I love him.
In the next part of this blog series, I’ll be talking about my emotional journey as a caregiver, and how I was ultimately able to handle it.
Until next time,