The Fight: A Caregiver's Struggle

“It’s cancer. The only thing to do is remove the leg.” Remove the leg. 

Immediately, I agreed and wanted it done as soon as possible. The veterinarian said Thursday, which was a couple of days. Okay, so you’re thinking a dog? You’re talking about a dog? And isn’t October Breast Cancer Awareness? I am talking about my dog and his tumor that was on his back leg, but that was just the beginning of my caregiver journey and what I believed God was preparing me for. I think cancer awareness in general is every month. You see, cancer just doesn’t affect the one diagnosed, it affects the entire family core. Or so it did and does in our case. It might’ve started out with our dog and his recovery of learning how to walk on three-legs, but the journey continued. 


Our family has always had cardiac disease. Out of twelve aunts and uncles, along with grandparents, eight of those have died of sudden heart attacks or strokes, not to mention the few aunts and uncles still living with heart disease, including my father. Though we do have an aunt who was diagnosed with breast cancer forty-years ago and had an immediate double-mastectomy. 

It seems, knock on wood, the heart disease has skipped my generation and we’ve gotten the cancer diagnosis. 

Let me preface by saying my husband and I are newly empty nesters with four young men in college. We live two hours away from my family and I do work at home as a full-time writer. A year ago, this month, I’ll never forget the phone call from my cousin Roberta, fifty-four years old. She’d been diagnosed with stage four colon and cervical cancer and very hopeful with the outcome. With second opinions on treatment and various trips to different states and cities to see what the best treatment should could get would ensue over the next few months. My mother had begun to be at my cousin’s side since Roberta’s mom had long since passed away. Roberta’s husband works in a factory and had to be at work by five a.m. My mother was amazing. She volunteered and went over to care for Roberta, which now was diagnosed with brain cancer as well. 

Like with my dog, I found I had the same attitude. Right now. Let’s go. Get moving. The go-getter. The one that was going to get it done for them. A couple of months after Roberta was diagnosed, my Uncle Jack was diagnosed with stage four bone cancer. He’d been seeking treatment for what we thought was carpel tunnel, boy. . .were they wrong. Of course, the fighter in me was to get the best possible care and fight, but all the worry and stress of traveling home, trying to take care of not only my diagnosed family members but also my mother. I had books deadlines and my college boys needed me too, not to mention another sick dog besides the one with the amputated leg. All of it had started to take a toll on me.

 My blood pressure was through the roof and I began to have ocular migraines. The migraines that are auras and visual changes. The ones that wouldn’t allow me to drive, write or tend to anyone. My doctors and I traced the times I’d have these migraines. High stress times. He had a very “come to Jesus talk with me” about my health and how I had to take care of myself before I could possibly care for others. That is and was hard for me. Mother of four boys. . .I take care of everyone. 

I was no good to my family members on what I called a journey, not a sickness, and only offer support by listening across the miles. Just as we got the news that Roberta and my Uncle Jack didn’t have much more time, I got another phone call from a cousin I’d consider as close as a sister. “I’ve got liver and colon cancer,” Karen’s voice cracked on the other side of the phone. She’s fifty-four years old, divorced, with two-daughters and two grandsons. 

That fight mentality really light up my soul and got me on fire. Immediately, I got an ocular migraine, one after the other. A couple of weeks later, both my cousin and uncle had passed away within six days of each other. Same family. I felt helpless and started to get more migraines. That’s when my mother and my sister pulled what my husband likes to call in intervention for me. My mom showed up, my sister took away all my electronics and they made me rest for a few days. My doctor had ordered me an MRI and a MRA due to my age of getting close to fifty. My grandmother, my aunt and my uncle all died at the age of fifty to brain aneurysm. My doctor just wanted to be sure. Luckily, everything was fine. It was time that I had to take care of myself. If I was going to help Karen and give her just love and support, I had to learn how to deal with stress. I started to be kinder to myself. I couldn’t drive the two hours home for each chemo and radiation appoint. I had a job that requires traveling and a family that needed me. 


While Karen was on the road to what looked like a positive outcome, they’d removed the part of the colon and half of her liver, putting the coil in the other half to regenerate so they could go in and remove the other half, last month’s scan wasn’t what we’d hoped. Karen’s now in the fight of her life with the cancer spreading to her spine and lungs.  Through this journey of fight and struggle over the past year, I’ve learned that what my cousins needed most was someone to just be there. Not fight the fight for them, but to be strong by keeping my mouth shut and an ear to listen. To really listen. Provide a strong shoulder to cry on. 

And, more importantly to take care of myself so I can truly be strong for the fight they are going through. 

I take that knowledge and understanding and now host a monthly cousins’ supper where I go home one weekend a month. Our cousins have gotten together and had so much fun. I know Karen loves to get together for those. It's something all of us look forward to. Share. Love. Find the support we need.  

Tonya Kappes

USA Today Bestselling Author

Southern Mystery Author

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