I had just graduated college in 2013 when my dad was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Like most people diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, the discovery of his disease was a fluke. His car was rear-ended, which led to an x-ray, which showed a mass in his lung. He was given a 50% chance of living six months.
You grow up pretty quickly when something like this happens. While I have two half siblings, they are much older and lived in other parts of the country, so I felt like I had to put the family on my back.
Our entire family dynamic shifted. Every kid goes through it at some point, but when a parent gets diagnosed with a disease like this, it’s more of a flip of a switch than a gradual change over time.
I coped through pragmatism. My focus was trying to figure out what was best for my parents and how this would all work. I learned all I could about lung cancer and asked a lot of questions of my dad’s doctors and care team. My mantra was: hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
While this approach was valuable for getting my dad on the right treatment, it didn’t leave me much time to take care of myself emotionally. Something I’ve learned from this journey is that cancer doesn’t just happen to one person; it happens to the entire family. The patient’s situation is definitely a big piece of everything, but it’s still part of a larger puzzle.
It took me several years to start opening up to friends and significant others about what I was dealing with. It’s easier to bury stuff down, but that catches up with you and starts to come out in unfortunate ways. You need to be proactive and surround yourself with people looking out for you too.
Through LUNGevity’s LifeLine program, I mentor other caregivers. I listen and try to give people an outlet. The biggest piece of advice I give everyone I talk to is to take care of themselves. From my many years of speaking with other caregivers, it has become abundantly clear that caretakers do not prioritize themselves enough. When I speak with them, I emphasize that you can’t be a good caregiver if you don’t care for yourself too.
It has been eight years, and my dad is doing well. He was fortunate to have a mutation that could be treated with a targeted therapy. When he had some growth after a few years on the first drug, there was another drug that also targeted his mutation that he could switch to.
Now, my dad is taking one pill a day, is symptom-free, and his cancer is neutralized. It’s a pretty amazing state of affairs. We feel lucky. Sometimes, though, I feel survivor guilt by proxy. There are so many people in this community who are not as fortunate as me. This is part of the reason I like to give back by volunteering my time to support other lung cancer caregivers and raising money for more lung cancer research.
Something very special that my dad and I do together every year is Swim Across America in Baltimore. Each year, my dad and I swim a mile in open water to raise funds for more cancer research. It’s an incredible event that brings our family, friends, and community together. In fact, for the past two years, my half-sister Jane joined us on the swim, which was very meaningful. This swim is consistently one of the best days of my year.
It’s pretty amazing that my father, an 80-year-old, 8-year lung cancer survivor, can swim a mile in open water every year. I’m not really a swimmer, and every year, I find myself in the water, somewhere along the mile, and want to give up. But then I think about my dad, somewhere in the water also, getting this done. And I keep going.
Being able to do this with my dad is a memory I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. It’s thanks to the incredible cancer researchers who created the miracle drug that he takes every day that I am able to have these moments with him. That’s why I continue to raise funds to support more breakthroughs in lung cancer research and treatment that can save lives. I am forever grateful.
Ben Schachtel is a Director at Oak HC/FT, a leading healthcare and fintech venture capital firm, where he works closely with innovative startups to improve the broken healthcare and financial systems through technology. He shares his story to inspire other caregivers to practice self-care and seek support. Ben enjoys spending time with friends and family, supporting his girlfriend Blair West’s music career, playing really any and all sports, and cheering on his Baltimore Ravens.