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Lessons Learned Through Caregiving

My wife Marcia was a loving mother, friend, sister, aunt, and daughter. She extended genuine warmth and affection to each and every person she knew, always accepting without judgment. She was fiercely loyal to her family and friends, like a mother bear with her cubs.

With Marcia, the house was filled with laughter and meals were made with love. She took care of all of us, and we took care of each other, raising our daughter Julianna together and making each other happy. What we shared in 20 years together was not perfect by any means, but for me it was perfectly imperfect and it worked.

When Marcia was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in February 2013, both of our worlds changed. She had complained of stomach pain and was initially diagnosed with gallstones. After a series of visits with specialists, we found out that it was cancer instead.

As the seriousness of Marcia’s situation became clear, I knew with utter certainty that, no matter what happened, I was committed to being with her every step of the way on this new and frightening journey. I felt a feeling of love so deep that it needed nothing in return. While neither of us was remotely prepared for this sudden shift in our lives, I knew that I needed to be present for my wife—that I couldn’t try to control the circumstances, I just had to be in the moment.

After Marcia was diagnosed, I recommitted myself to my mindfulness practice. Throughout my life, meditation and mindfulness have helped me navigate challenging times. Buddhist wisdom—particularly the idea that everything is in flux, nothing is permanent, and all is changing—has always resonated deeply with me. This knowledge helped me so much in the two years following Marcia’s diagnosis. It made me a better husband and caregiver. It helped me stay in the moment, be present for Marcia, and diminish the power of my insecurities and deep fears.

After two years of chemotherapy, radiation, a vaccine clinical trial, and finally, pain management and hospice care, Marcia died surrounded by her family and friends in our home. I was grateful that in her final moments, the family she so fiercely loved was right beside us.

When I think back on the final years of my life with Marcia, I see that there are many lessons I learned through being a caregiver. I learned how important it is never to take away the patient’s hope for survival. I learned how important it is to remain open, and let go of your ego and needs. I learned the importance of taking five minutes a day to sit quietly and give yourself loving kindness and non-judgmental self-acceptance.

I never truly appreciated how strong and what a warrior Marcia was until I saw how she handled her illness for two years before her body simply gave up. Her spirit never faltered but the machine simply could not do it anymore. She was a real hero who never complained.

Sure, when we were alone in our room we would talk, and we each expressed our disbelief about how all of this could be happening. But she never talked about giving in and I never said anything to steal her hope of beating the disease. Watching her bravery, I learned some very good lessons about real strength and spirit.

Joe DiNardo has written a book that follows his journey with Marcia, from cancer diagnosis to death. A Letter to My Wife is available on Amazon.com. All proceeds benefit the Marcia DiNardo Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.