Like most men, I never imagined that I would one day find myself sitting at the bedside of a 32-year-old spouse while she battled terminal cancer.
When Linnea was first diagnosed with breast cancer in November of 2014, we knew almost nothing of the cancer world; but we knew that breast cancer was supposed to be one of the better-understood, well-funded, and most treatable cancers out there...My mother was a survivor, so we knew there was hope.
Then we heard the words "triple-negative" for the first time. "That's the one you don't want" her oncologist told us. For patients with triple-negative breast cancer, survival probability is lower at every stage of disease. For metastatic disease, the five-year survival probability is less than two per cent.
Less than six months after completing a successful treatment regime, Linnea's disease returned and in one fell swoop destroyed our sense of optimism and our future together. First spreading to her lungs, then to her spine and pelvis, and onward from there, her cancer marched unrelenting through her increasingly weary and fragile body. In me, it created a crisis of mental health and a struggle to cope. There is no playbook for living with someone you love that is dying, even though most of us will go through it at some point in life. I struggled to find the good in much of anything.
When you live each day without looking at the next, you do your level best to take pleasures in the little things as they are presented to you.
Everything changes when your partner is diagnosed with a terminal illness and enduring a brutal treatment. The routines and rhythms that establish over time in a relationship are turned upside down. The joys are whittled down and the worries grow with every appointment. I found myself racked with anxiety and unable to work.
Exercise became a thing of the past. I gained weight prodigiously. The things that I loved to do -- drink coffee on the porch with Linnea in the morning sunshine or make an elegant dinner for friends and family, slowly withered away -- only to be replaced with caregiver tasks: making sure she got enough water, ensuring she takes her meds on time, managing side-effects appropriately, driving to appointments seemingly every day, making sure the dog is walked and groceries and meds stocked up. The old routines were replaced by a bizarre Groundhog-Day-esque existence and it became impossible to look beyond the next day, the next step.
When you live each day without looking at the next, you do your level best to take pleasures in the little things as they are presented to you. Every morning I wake up grateful to see Linnea's beautiful face next to mine, and in that one amnesiac moment forger that she is slipping away. I commit every smile and laugh to memory. I take too many photographs that she hates. But photographs never seem to capture the spark in her eyes when she smiles at me, the way her little crow's-feet smile at me too. And I cry. And I go on because I have no choice. Because there is nothing more important to me than this new role that I have been given, this new routine that we live together.
And so, on a particularly gloomy January morning I found myself at Linnea's side, awaiting radiation treatment in the basement of the Cross Cancer Institute, weary from the routine and struggling to cope with a now familiar sense of hopelessness and anxiety. I am not a person who is well equipped to stand on the sidelines and watch while someone I love is suffering -- I felt an all-consuming need to do something (anything!) but with no training in medicine, there I was: riding the bench.
I don't want to make it sound like it was an "aha!" moment -- clouds parting, trumpets from heaven, that sort of thing -- because nothing can change what is happening to Linnea and I. but what happened that morning did change my outlook without a doubt. Restlessly flipping through waiting room magazines and brochures as we all do, I picked up a shiny brochure and turned it over: "Be Epic!" it said "Join the Ride to Conquer Cancer." My mountain bike had been collecting dust in the garage for the better part of five years. I had gained more than 15 pounds since the fall... Still, with the promise that I could do something to help, I signed up virtually the next day.
I bought a new bike and started training. I sent an email to a few friends, hoping to find one or two that would be willing to train with me and help me raise funds. I put the word out to my friends on social media.
Everything that has happened since then has been a wonderment to me. I met my initial fundraising goal in less than a day. In a few short weeks I had a team of 15 riders signed to my team -- friends, family, colleagues, strangers. An eclectic group of people (most of whom had never met each other) melded into a community of support and inspiration for Linnea and myself. Watching the donations and well wishes come in has quite literally given me a new take on humanity -- I am overwhelmed at the generosity of ordinary people. It gives me enough optimism to fend off the despair that seems to peek over every horizon.
Every day that I am out training, turning the pedals, I remind myself that at some point in the not-too-distant future Linnea will run out of conventional treatment options and our last hope for more time together will be clinical trials. Funds raised through The Ride to Conquer Cancer support breakthrough cancer research, clinical trials, enhanced care and the discovery of new cancer therapies at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Cross Cancer Institute and 15 other centres across Alberta.
When donations come in they are immediately made available to the Alberta Cancer Foundation. So, I tell myself that in a very real way, I've found a way to do something that just might help the woman I love, and the thousands of others in this country who are facing this horrible disease (and their loved ones and caregivers, who suffer in silence alongside them). That thought keeps pulling me forward as I ride. It keeps my legs going even when they are screaming at me to stop.
When I signed up for this adventure I knew almost nothing about The Ride. Today I am a Ride Ambassador and our team -- Linnea's Legion -- has raised over $37,000, nearly 75 per cent of our $50,000 goal; money that will go directly to research into triple-negative breast cancers here in Alberta. The Ride has raised over $54 million for the Alberta Cancer Foundation since its inception in 2009.
You can help. Click here to learn more about the Ride to Conquer Cancer, and about Linnea's Legion. I hope you will consider making a donation to our team, or to someone whose personal story touches you.
The Ride to Conquer has taught me that ordinary people can be heroes. We just need each other to make it happen. We are all in this together.
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