By Monique Tremblay
Caregivers are often told, “You need to take care of yourself if you are taking care of others.” It’s so easy to say but not so easy to do.
I wrote the above sentence in June 2021 for a future memoir. I had no way of knowing that 15 months later I would be writing about a new challenge. Before I can share my breast cancer story, I need to set the scene.
In December 2005 Rick, my husband, had a stroke. Our lives were changed forever. He has been in long-term care since then while I have been put to the test as his designated caregiver. It took years before I had a self-care routine in place, but that fell apart when COVID became a new trial in 2020. This turned the already dysfunctional long-term care system into absolute chaos. Lockdowns, PCR tests, and vaccines were part of my daily vocabulary. To spice up the chaos, my husband and I were forced into 137 days of separation. All we had was one 30-minute Facetime session a week. Finally, things went back to some sense of normal in August 2022.
Normal was short-lived starting September 26, 2022, when I went for a biopsy. Then on October 11, 2022, the biopsy result: “Invasive Ductal Carcinoma – stage II!” When I received this news, my mind went from frenzy to fear. I asked if I would need a mastectomy like my mother. “No. We caught this early. When your mother had cancer that was 17 years ago, treatment has advanced so much since then,” my doctor assured me. When the call was over, I just sat there in silence. My mind was racing. Frantic thoughts fired from all directions. Fear fueled by my imagination.
Throughout my breast cancer battle, I was thinking of Rick. What will happen to him if I don’t survive? Based on my caregiver journey, the facts, and my gut instincts, I felt he would be abandoned. He would be alone and forgotten, like most long-term care residents. A few special friends may step up, but I couldn’t keep my hopes up. There was only one option in my mind and my heart – I must oppose my cancer, overcome it. I couldn’t hide under the covers, cower in the corner, and play the oh-woe-is-me card. I had to meet my fears head-on.
Taking care of myself during this time wasn’t easy. The fact is that I was scared, and I felt very much alone. I couldn’t help remembering when Rick had his stroke, and how surprised and hurt I was when people close to us couldn’t face this. Gradually they disappeared from our lives. Only a handful remained. I swallowed my fear of yet another possible rejection when I shared my news with those people I hoped would be there for me. They vanished as well. I felt I had a “best before date” tattooed on my forehead giving them permission to toss me out because I have breast cancer.
Not all was lost, however; I had support from certain family, other friends, and re-kindled acquaintances. They showed up for appointments, helped with chores, and came over to decorate my Christmas tree. Most importantly, phone calls simply to lend an empathetic ear. Judgement-free. I had a renewed faith that there are amazing people who care.
What I learned as a caregiver and breast cancer patient is how important it was for me to write my stories. Writing in real-time helped me to stay grounded, at least some of the time. It allowed me to reflect on what has happened and what will happen next. From the biopsy, the surgery, the radiation, and the medication. Every step, every emotion, and everything I learned was written. These breast cancer and caregiver stories will be included in my future memoir. I believe it's important for caregivers, especially those who have someone in long-term care, read about my journey should they also face breast cancer on top of everything else. It’s all about self-reliance and a dash of stubbornness.
I have a secret weapon to help me through my struggle against breast cancer: my sarcastic, whimsical sense of humour. This keeps me sane at least some of the time. I’ve had 18 years of practice using humour to deal with my caregiving challenges. It’s still not easy taking care of myself either, but I try each day. I have emotional scars and a new 2.5” scar on my breast to prove my courage.
Monique Tremblay is co-author of Musically Yours. She is currently compiling her experiences and memoirs as a caregiver, and now also as a breast cancer patient, for future publication. You can learn more about Monique’s writing here.