Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nothing Had Prepared Me for the Job

As seen in "A New Heart" Spring 2011

When my husband, Jim, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002, I suddenly found myself among the fifty-two million family caregivers in the United States alone.
Nothing in my background prepared me for the job.

I grew up in a multigenerational household in which no one was ever sick—or at least they didn’t talk about it. We were a stoic bunch of Midwesterners who seldom took to their beds. We didn’t even own a thermometer; my grandmother used the hand-on-the forehead method.

Nor was I a particularly nurturing person. I didn’t have younger brothers or sisters; I seldom played with dolls, never baby sat; and in imaginary play, I was the always the doctor—never the nurse.

I don’t even like the word “caregiver” which conjures up the image of a little old lady in sensible shoes who speaks to her patients in the third person plural. “Did we eat our breakfast today? Did we sleep well?” But whether or not I liked the word, I had become a caregiver. Though lacking in experience and training, I had the one necessary qualification: I loved my husband and was determined to do whatever I could to help in his recovery.

Jim was diagnosed on November 15. After a week of doctor appointments, scans, tests, and sleepless nights, he went into the hospital for surgery. During the procedure, the surgeon discovered the cancer had spread outside the lung. Reluctant leave his side, I stayed day and night, hoping to hear something that would assure me of his ultimate recovery. It is no wonder I came home from the hospital stay, exhausted, afraid, and completely unprepared for the task ahead of me.

I could handle the physical demands of caring for a seriously ill person had they not been exacerbated by the stress of emotional involvement. This was not like caring for a child with the flu whom you know will recover. My husband had a terminal disease. Every cough or moan or wheeze reminded me of the likely outcome.

I was overwhelmed. Not only was I responsible for dispensing medications, changing dressings, administering injections, bathing, rehab, and meal preparation, I had the additional burdens of decision making, encounters with physicians and medical personnel (which can be intimidating), researching treatments, and keeping my husband’s spirits up.

You’ve heard it said that “God never gives us more than we can handle.” If this is true, then I agree with Mother Theresa who said, “God must have overestimated me.” God does give us more than we can handle—often—so that we will learn to lean on Him. In 2 Corinthians, Jesus says, “My grace is sufficient for thee for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” We need only to surrender ourselves to Him and trust in His ability to do what we cannot. When finally I did this, I—perhaps for the first time ever—understood Paul’s response. “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities so that the power of Christ might rest upon me.” I have never felt closer to God than in those early months when I was leaning so heavily on Him.

Over the past eight years, Jim has had three surgeries, two series of radiotherapy, two recurrences (the last to the bone in 2009), eight chemotherapy drugs, and a second primary cancer. We have seen many miracles—the most impressive, his eight year survival with a deadly cancer.

Less obvious, but just as real, is the transformation God made in me. As only God can, He equipped me to do a job I could never have done on my own and in the process, gave me a new heart for the sick and hurting. Through the support group that we started in 2003, I have had the opportunity to reach out to other overburdened, overwhelmed and often overlooked caregivers. God doesn’t waste our suffering. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God “(2 Corinthians 1: 3,4).

Taking care of a cancer patient—particularly one you love—is a job most mortals can’t do alone. Fortunately, when God asks us to do something, he also equips us. If we accept the challenge and overcome the hurdles He places before us, He showers us with unexpected blessings. God hasn’t healed my husband, but He has drawn us closer to the ultimate Healer and enriched our lives immeasurably.

Cynthia Siegfried is the author of Cancer Journey: A Caregiver’s View from the Passenger Seat. She has published articles in Nostalgia Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Significant Living, Charles Stanley’s InTouch, and Coping with Cancer. She and her husband are co-founders of f.a.i.t.H.—facing an illness through Him.