I met my husband Don forty-seven years ago, at the church in my hometown of St. Thomas in Ontario, after graduating from nursing school. He has been my life partner through the ups and downs, raising our children and now, enjoying time with our three grandsons.
Our lives were forever changed 20 years ago, when spots appeared on Don’s face. We discovered that it was advanced basal cell carcinoma, a common, but deadly form of skin cancer.
We have been battling this disease ever since his diagnosis and have stuck together through it all. While some may see me as Don’s “caregiver,” helping him is not a job. It’s our lifestyle which we have become accustomed to and has strengthened our relationship. I am always by Don’s side as we go through this journey together.
I’m often asked how we do it; how we’re able to live a normal life with cancer looming in the background. We try to make our everyday tasks as normal as possible, even if that includes any sort of treatment or hospital visits for Don.
As a forensic nurse, I wasn’t familiar with skin cancer beyond preventing it with sunscreen. By helping Don and attending every one of his appointments, I’ve learned everything I possibly can about advanced basal cell carcinoma to equip us for this battle.
If you have a spouse who has been diagnosed with cancer, I want you to know that you are not alone. I’ve outlined advice to those who may be in the same situation, in the hope that you too, can learn to create normalcy out of the chaos that is a cancer diagnosis, ultimately coming out together stronger as partners.
Sometimes I see spouses in the waiting room as their loved one is in consultation appointments. I can understand they may want to give privacy, but it’s important to remember that your partner may be overwhelmed by the amount of information given to them by the doctors and nurses.
I recommend going into as many appointments as possible, bringing a notebook with you to take note of everything. Don sometimes forgets what he hears, so it helps us remember everything that is said in these appointments.
If something doesn’t make sense, ask for clarification right away and do your own research if you can. Advanced basal cell carcinoma is difficult and complex to treat, so we had lots to learn. Thankfully, there are more treatment options available now than there was when Don was first diagnosed in 1996.
Don is treated by a fantastic multidisciplinary team at the London Health Sciences Centre with a dermatologist, surgeon, and medical oncologist, working collaboratively with our family physician to find the best treatment options for him. Each of these specialists has been open to questions and making sure we understand the medical information given to us.
You can’t take care of your spouse on your own, so don’t be afraid to ask people for help—even if it’s just someone keeping you company on the drives to and from the hospital. Your family and friends are there to assist you, along with support groups that are available at local hospitals.
The best thing for me, personally, is chatting about concerns I don’t want to worry Don with. Going out for coffee with a girlfriend gives me a chance to chat through what we are dealing with and mentally process our situation. I always feel relieved after these talks.
Unfortunately, Don’s skin cancer could have been prevented. He worked outside without sunscreen and the skin exposed to the sun’s harmful rays is where he has basal cell carcinoma. I now strongly recommend wearing sunscreen to avoid anyone else we know from being one of the 60,000 Canadians affected by basal cell carcinoma every year.
Not all cancers are preventable, but many are, due to genetics and lifestyle choices. I encourage you to speak with your family and friends about the cancer you or your spouse has been diagnosed with, the importance of healthy living and the need for screening so that if anything develops, it is caught early on and is easier to treat.
Every day I am thankful for Don, and the courage and strength he exempts. I can only hope that others going through the same experiences can support each other the way Don and I do.
If you are looking for resources to help you and your family through an illness, visit your local health centre and talk to your family doctor about support groups, treatment options and other resources to help you and your family deal with a cancer diagnosis.