Caregiver Faces Challenge: Husband and Son Both Diagnosed With Cancer

It can overtake your life and be all you think about, but you still need to laugh. You don’t have to be somber and sad all the time – it doesn’t help. We have always dealt with life with laughter. It’s either cry or laugh – and I’d rather laugh.

Diane Fleming
Diane Fleming and her son, Alex,standing outside

Diane and Alex in 2017

When the Flemings were a family of 4, Diane and her husband Shawn juggled work, volunteering, and family time, along with their kids’ school, sports, and other extra-curricular activities – just like a lot of busy families. 

Then in July 2012, their world was turned upside down when their son Alex, age 20, was diagnosed with testicular cancer and just one month later Shawn, age 45, was diagnosed with bone cancer.

 

Diane was suddenly thrust into role of caregiver for Alex and Shawn while trying to keep home life as normal as possible for her daughter Olivia, age 15. “We lived through cancer, but it didn’t define us,” said Diane. “It can overtake your life and be all you think about, but you still need to laugh. You don’t have to be somber and sad all the time – it doesn’t help. We have always dealt with life with laughter. It’s either cry or laugh – and I’d rather laugh.”

Alex

Alex’s symptoms started with pain in his back. At the time, he was a psychology student at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, and working two jobs. Everyone thought he’d just pulled a muscle, which is a much more common cause of pain than cancer, especially in someone so young. But the pain did not go away. It got worse. Then Alex noticed swelling in his groin. He went to the emergency room, where he had scans and tests.

Alex had testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen, liver, and lungs. He would be treated with surgery and 3 months of aggressive chemotherapy to stop the cancer before it could spread to his brain. The side effects were tough. He developed blood clots, had difficulty breathing, lost his appetite, lost weight, and lost his hair. Diane searched for foods and recipes that would tempt Alex to eat. She bargained with him to get him to drink protein shakes and cooked several different meals each night, in the hopes he’d eat something. She joked about how many times she’d go back to the grocery store for more ingredients.

Every night after Alex’s treatment, Diane encouraged him to walk to the end of their driveway. When he could do that, she pushed him to walk down the street. Some nights, Alex woke up in a panic and didn’t know where he was. Diane began carrying around a baby monitor, and many nights she sat by his bed.

Alex was in the infusion room getting chemotherapy when Diane and his nurses told him his father also had cancer.

Shawn

Shawn’s symptoms also started with pain. His was in his hip. A pediatric nurse, Shawn was on his feet all day at work, and at age 45, the most likely cause was arthritis. But his pain didn’t go away either – it also just got worse. After many tests, scans, and biopsies, Shawn learned he had stage IV bone cancer – a type of sarcoma – that had spread to his liver and lungs.

Specialists were unable to determine what type of sarcoma Shawn had, which made his treatment more difficult. Diane understood the severity of Shawn’s disease right away. She said, “When I heard the news, I just had a really bad feeling. I said I was just going to visit a neighbor, and I left the house. I went down there and dropped to my knees, and I said, ‘I think I’m losing Shawn.’”

Shawn began chemotherapy to try to get the tumors in his lungs under control. He hoped the tumors would shrink so he could have hip replacement surgery, recover, and return to work. He had some good days eating pizza and watching Dr. Who on television with Olivia, and taking her to get her driver’s permit. But the treatments did not appear to be working. Shawn became weaker and began relying on a cane to help him walk.

A few months after he began chemotherapy, Shawn became suddenly very sick and dizzy. Doctors found a lesion in his brain and performed surgery to try to remove it and save his life. But two weeks later, he died. “He said, ‘I love you forever,’ and that’s the last thing he said to me,” said Diane.

Alex and Olivia today

During his treatment, Alex took leaves of absence from his jobs and school. He was able to return a few months after his last chemo appointment. He earned his psychology degree and is now working on a second degree, in social work. He has an internship at the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh. He’s still under doctor’s care and is waiting to officially celebrate 5 years of being cancer free.

Olivia is a Junior at Siena College in Albany, New York and is active in her school’s Relay For Life team. Relay For Life events are held every year in communities around the world, raising money to invest in research and to provide information and services to cancer patients and caregivers.

Diane’s tips for caregivers

Diane says she has been asked many times how she got through the toughest times. Her answer: she didn’t have a choice. “Everyone kept saying, ‘How can you handle this?’ My husband and I had a mantra. We would say, ‘Give me no options and I can be amazing.’ The day he died, I promised him I would continue to live by this mantra.”

She offers these tips:

  • Be honest. We had family meetings after every doctor appointment to discuss treatments. Knowledge is power. As bad as the situation is, it’s 10 times worse if you don’t know. Fear of the unknown will eat at you.
  • Be grateful. Try to get up every day and appreciate that it’s a blessing to have that day. When my kids were down in the dumps I’d tell them somebody else is getting a diagnosis today. Somebody else is still on day 1. We need to be grateful for where we are today. Be grateful for your family, your community, and the blessings that you have.
  • Take care of yourself. Tell people when you want them around and when you don’t. You don’t want to shut yourself off, or hurt people’s feelings, but you have to also think about yourself and say what you want.
  • Try to keep home life as normal as possible. Be open and honest with your children. They know something is going on. If you hide it, you are less able to help them cope.
  • Be prepared. I kept a “chemo bag” to bring to the infusion room equipped with playing cards, video games, granola bars, cans of soups, lunch, drinks, and something to write with. I also brought a shawl I could use as a sweater if I was cold, or a blanket if I needed to sleep in a chair. I never knew when I’d end up spending the night in the hospital.
  • Give back. Every year I buy 15 shawls and donate them to a local medical center for caregivers. Caregivers get forgotten sometimes.
  • Be there. It’s hard to watch something that’s completely out of your hands. You may feel like you can’t do anything. But there is a lot you can do and you need to focus on that. It makes such a huge difference for you just to be there.

And she has one tip for family and friends. “Sometimes people don’t know what to say, and they don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they don’t say anything. But they need to. To me, there is no wrong thing. It’s better to try.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Have you or someone you love been touched by cancer? Help us give hope to people across the country and around the world by sharing your story. It's stories like yours that provide comfort and courage to others whose lives have been touched by cancer.

Share your story.

 


American Cancer Society news stories are copyrighted material and are not intended to be used as press releases. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.