Heather Cimino’s father died in 2008. He had mesothelioma and lived only six weeks after his diagnosis. So, when Heather’s mom was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in April 2015, Heather became her caregiver. Fortunately, her mom lives just down the street so Heather can check on her regularly. “I sit with her on chemo days, visit with her, and make sure she has food,” she says. “I’m pretty experienced in this now.”
You see, this isn’t Heather’s first go around as a caregiver. Her first began in January 2012 while she was in the operating room undergoing a Caesarean section. She and her husband Nick were anticipating the arrival of their third son. Except, Heather says Nick wasn’t there. He was in the ER with a possible blood clot in his leg. Nick had been complaining of leg pain during her pregnancy, but Nick and Heather, who had been married seven years, were busy people. They had two sons under the age of five, another on the way, and both worked and attended school full time. He’d been told by doctors that the pain was probably just residual from a long-ago injury so Nick ignored it until that day when he couldn’t ignore it anymore.
The pain wasn’t from a clot. It was a tumor and, within a week, Nick was diagnosed with High Grade Spindle Cell Sarcoma. Treatment began immediately and, for awhile, things were okay. Heather managed to care for her three sons and Nick, who was confined to the first floor of their home: the tumor in his leg broke the bone so he required a walker to get around. Heather was even able to return to work some of the time so that they could keep their insurance. Despite the surgeries and blood transfusions and hospital stays and travel to different treatment facilities, Heather and Nick wanted to provide a sense of order for their boys. “We tried to make life as normal as possible,” says Heather who organized Nick’s pill schedule around her breastfeeding schedule. After eight rounds of chemotherapy and then radiation five days a week for seven weeks, Nick’s scans were good. “But then,” says Heather, “the tumors sprouted up and ten months in, he was terminal.”
Nick and Heather, who both had medical backgrounds, looked for any possible hope. “We would sit up all night researching,” she says, “but there was no good outcome.” They went to New York and tried a different chemo treatment, they reached out to facilities all over from Texas to Europe but nothing worked. So, they scheduled family pictures and made sure to get lots of photos of Nick with his sons.
Nick died in May 2013. He was 31 years old. Their boys were 1, 3 and 6 years old and Heather, who had not slept for more than two hours at a time since that day in January 2012, had no time to grieve. “It’s all a blur,” she says looking back. “I was so worried about the kids.” She put the two older boys in an art therapy class and found a church that embraced her family and offered her support. “It was like we started a whole new life,” she says.
Like many caregivers, Heather didn’t have time to think about her role as caregiver, she simply took it on and did what had to be done and it wasn’t always easy. “When Nick was sick he yelled at me a lot,” she says. At first, she was surprised by the behavior from her mild-mannered, soft-spoken husband, but one of his doctors told her not to take it personally. Sometimes the medication can cause the behavior, but so can the emotion. Heather equates it to a child who has to hold in his fears and angers all day in front of others and then lashes out when he feels safe.
While Heather would like to advise other caregivers to take care of themselves, she says it’s just not likely to happen. There’s no time and even when people offered to help, she never wanted to leave Nick’s side. But, she did take some advice from another caregiver. “She told me, ‘Smell your person, touch them, look at them, pick something to focus on so you will remember it’,” says Heather. “It will go so fast, so take the moment.” Heather says she is grateful for that advice. “Even now I can close my eyes and I can see the freckle he had between his brow.”
Remembering the moments keeps Nick’s memory alive.“He’s always there,” she says. “It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but it has.” The boys are 11, 8 and 5 now and all in school. Though, she is moving forward carefully so as not to overwhelm her sons, Heather has begun a relationship with a man she describes as very patient. And, of course, she’s caring for her mom. “We just keep trucking through,” she says.
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.