When cancer struck Shannon in early 2013, we were not prepared (who is really). Shannon and I were in shock with the diagnosis. It was not sudden but materialized over a year of abnormal pap smears. In hindsight, I feel Shannon had the fears all along, but shielded them from me, until it was confirmed that she had Cervical Cancer. I was always an encourager, so the role was easy for me, or so I thought. The first days of doctor appointments, we were both numb, but Shannon was healthy, she felt great, looked great, so the first damage that is done with an early diagnosis is mental. In looking back and hearing other warrior’s battles, Shannon really needed to be speaking to a trained therapist that specializes in working with cancer patients. Little did we know the mental obstacle course we both would be facing as she endured surgery, chemo, radiation, and doctor appointment after doctor appointment. We trusted her medical team, who did an adequate job of removing cancer. We did not know the hidden illness that comes with lymph node removal and radiation – lymphedema. It seems weird to report, and I am curious to hear from other warriors and encouragers on their journey, but cancer did not affect Shannon as bad as the lymphedema. She was mentally prepared and had faith that the battle before her would be won. Lymphedema, however, was the challenge and where my role of encourager was tested daily.
It was the constant swelling, and uncomfortableness morning, noon, and night that was debilitating for her. She battled cancer, a hysterectomy, chemo, and radiation like a champion and was prepared to get on with her life. But the swelling post-surgery never subsided and continued down her leg to her ankles. Walking was a chore, sitting, was a chore, living was a chore, and on several nights, in her darkest hour, she shared she would rather die than to continue feeling this bad for the next 30-40 years. I did not feel she was suicidal, and this was a red flag that should have prompted a meeting with a trained therapist to help her. I mentioned it but never pushed her or encouraged her to explore this option.
The years of living day to day and with Shannon having lymphedema took a toll on me, but I was unaware. You see I am a fixer and problem solver. Most men are, we handle issues by getting our toolbox and getting to work to sort things out, never reading the instructions, and never asking for help. It is how we are built. Women are built differently. They talk to talk, to vent, validate each other, and when they are done, nothing is fixed but they feel better, connect better, and heal. Shannon did not need me to fix anything. She did need me to listen, and comfort, and validate. During this time Shannon so desperately wanted to speak with someone that had been down the road she is on. The friends she had, she felt disconnected from. She often mentioned feeling miserable in social situations because she did not fit in. She envied their youth and vitality, she longed to just be the old Shannon again. Not rational thoughts but clearly how Shannon felt. As her encourager, I had no idea what to do with this information, how to help her. I did what I knew, I kept her laughing, I fed her, and I loved her.
Encouragement – the action of giving someone support, confidence, or hope
Synonyms: heartening, cheering up, inspiration, motivation, stimulation, fortification, support, morale-boosting, a boost, a shot in the arm
If you look at the word Encouragement closely, you may see a word in the middle that stands out, C-O-U-R-A-G-E.
Courage – the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, without fear; bravery.
Our story, is a story of cancer twice, and lymphedema. The role I fell into that is labeled “Caregiver”. I never was comfortable with that name, as it is not altogether accurate. In a closer examination of the past few years, a better label would be that of Encourager. My wife fell into a role, she never expected or wanted, that of “Cancer Patient” or “Survivor”. She did not like that label. But she felt better with “Warrior”. Both Warrior and Encourager are positive strong words that more define the role of a person battling and those around them that are supporting them.
Warrior – a person engaged or experienced in warfare; a person engaged in some kind of struggle or conflict.
Encourager – to inspire with courage, spirit, or confidence.
I shared this discovery with Shannon and she agreed wholeheartedly with the label. She pointed out which was not as obvious to me, “Look at the first letters in each of the words… W and E, which combined spell WE, very ironic but fitting description of the battle. For Shannon, her first cancer journey was a very personal and solo journey (only confiding in me). She was not in a good place nor was I. When she was diagnosed with cancer the second time, she was blessed with many encouragers, from the nurse navigator from the hospital to her plastic surgeon, her support group – Beyond Boobs / Here for the Girls. Shannon’s “I” turned into a “WE”. Her outlook improved, she was happy, and this was a blessing.
What I failed to see until her second cancer diagnosis (Breast Cancer) was that the Encourager needs Encouragement too, but not from the Warrior. In a war, there are many battles that comprise the totality of the event. I had no idea the battle I was in. I was oblivious, but the toll of insurance, and deductibles, and fatherhood, and kids, and cancer, and lymphedema, career, and finances all took their toll on me almost to the point of breakdown. My normal become anxiety, facial-ticks, and panic attacks. This was my normal, I had no comparison to draw from. My wife suggested I “speak to someone” because she realized she was unable to offer any comfort or advice for me. I took her suggestion and reached out to a Christian Counselor, just to talk. I had so much on my plate. I remember my first meeting with the Dr. it took a few minutes to answer the question of “What brings you in today?” He confirmed I have a lot on my plate. After 3 sessions he assessed that I had anxiety and depression – Dysthymia, a form of functional depressive disorder and I could feel better with counseling and medication. As it turns out, I had this my whole life and in looking back at my family history, I am convinced my parents had it and their parents, and siblings (my aunts and uncles) as well, because of the history of alcoholism in my family. I learned more about the disease and realized the family before me were more than likely self-medicating using alcohol. The tables have turned, and Shannon adds a new role to her Warrior designation and that is an Encourager to me, who has become a Warrior of anxiety and depression. We are all warriors battling something, and we all need encouragement. Shannon’s and my story is one of cancer and depression. For you, it could be something else. For men, we need a safe place to come to for support. For women, they need a safe place to share and be validated. Shannon and my hope with this community we are starting can be a healing place for everyone to come and to Find Encouragement.