by: Sara Schmidt
My life changed forever on Valentine’s Day 2001. I was living in Washington, D.C. and pursuing a fast-paced career in public relations. I was 25 years old, I loved my job, I loved my apartment, I loved my friends and I loved my life. But, on that cold February evening 16 years ago, my father called to tell me he was recently diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Just ten short months after my dad was diagnosed with cancer, he passed away. I recall being so angry at the world for robbing me of my father. But, my dad’s ten-month journey with mesothelioma taught me more about life, love and family than I learned in the first 25 years of my life. I learned that not all chemo is created equal, that it is exhausting just to sit in a hospital waiting room and that the human body is capable of some pretty incredible things. I learned that hospital cafeterias curiously serve pretty unhealthy food, that I never want to live a life of regrets and that we should always remember to keep a firm perspective on life. I was there at the end of my father’s life, and I got to hold his hand and kiss his cheek while he drew his last breath.
Cancer has been a huge part of my life. Since my father’s passing in 2002, I lost an aunt and a very good friend to breast cancer, my favorite uncle and a cousin to colon cancer and another aunt to oral cancer. And, another uncle has bravely battled Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma for nearly 15 years. Then in 2012, my mom was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. I saw my mom endure a double mastectomy and the removal of 23 lymph nodes. During chemo, my mom spent 10 days in the hospital with an acute infection and she confessed that she was ready to give up the battle. The chemo just made her so sick and she was too tired and weak to fight. I told her firmly that giving up was not an option. I needed my mom and my children needed their grandma. My mom fought through her last chemo treatments and onto radiation. I’m happy to report that my mom has been in remission now for almost five years.
After the pain and anger of my dad’s passing settled, I was able to focus on the good my dad did for me, my family and our community. My dad was larger than life. He was the kind of man who fought for the underdog and he always did what was right over what was popular. He was a good businessman from a small town in South Dakota and he always believed that his success obligated him to work on behalf of his community.
In 2009 after the birth of my second son, I decided to leave the working world to help raise my family. I now have four young children ages 8, 7, 5 and 2. I used to cringe when people would ask me if I plan to go back to work after my youngest heads off to Kindergarten. I would tell everyone that I had plenty of time to decide what comes next for me. But, the truth was, I was no longer passionate about public relations and I simply lacked direction. I sought out “expert advice” and asked my four children what they thought mommy was good at. My eight-year old son, who inherited my dad’s black eyes and infinite wisdom, told me that I am good at helping children. And, here I am, ready and poised to pursue a master’s degree in social work at the University of Southern California beginning in the Fall of 2017.
I believe social work will give me the ability to advocate for so many underserved populations in our country, including those women, children and families affected by cancer. It is my intent to bring my personal experience with mesothelioma and other cancers to a career in social work. As painful as it was to see my both my parents suffer because of cancer and as painful as it was to lose my father, I learned to be resilient, to stand up for myself and to fight for what I believe is the right thing to do. Cancer taught me some hard life lessons. Lessons I plan to pass along in my career in social work. I still hate the disease for what it has done to my family. But, I know that I am a more confident and empathetic person because of it.
It sounds cliché, but I would tell anyone suffering from or watching a family member battle mesothelioma that anger will not get you very far when learning to deal with this disease. Trying to answer the, “why me?” of mesothelioma is futile. Learning to educate people about the disease and learning to use your experiences to help others will make you and your family true warriors in the battle against mesothelioma.