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Cancer times two

Author: Bridget McCrea

William DochnahlWilliam and Lynn Dochnahl had already battled two rounds of cancer under their Pendleton, Oregon, roof when, in August 2010, the shocking news came: William had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. How can it possibly be? the couple thought to themselves. How could we both have gotten cancer?

After shaking off their disbelief, the Dochnahls got down to business. Initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 1981, and again in 2002, Lynn, who is now 64, tapped her own knowledge bank and energy reserves to help William, 69, with his diagnosis and treatment and the subsequent side effects.

“I really wasn’t expecting anything like this to happen again in the family,” says Lynn, who helped her husband select a treatment center and prepped him on what to expect from the experience. She also helped William research the disease itself, and together they learned everything they possibly could about prostate cancer.

“Getting diagnosed was a shock, but Lynn was a great supporter who knew a lot about what I was about to go through,” says William. “She had already experienced the cancer treatment process and knew what to expect from doctors and caregivers.” Married since 1972, the pair worked together to tackle the challenges of William’s cancer, while continuing to manage Lynn’s ongoing breast cancer treatment, a scenario that forced the couple to focus their combined efforts on thwarting the disease.

As a result of his own diagnosis, William now has firsthand knowledge of how tiring and overwhelming cancer and its treatment can be, and has stepped up to the plate to help his wife cope. He now feels he is able to discuss the disease more intelligently and less emotionally. “You really can’t know what the other person is going through unless you’ve dealt with it yourself,” he says. “Only then can you know exactly what challenges she faces.”

Lynn, who works part-time as a kindergarten paraeducator, says balancing her everyday life with the side effects of treatment often leaves her completely spent by the end of the day. “Sometimes I just come home and collapse,” says Lynn, who has undergone chemotherapy treatments for years, while continuing to work. “Bill has been a wonderful caregiver.” Part of that caregiver role involves helping Lynn drain her lung every three days so that she can breathe normally. At first William doubted his ability to take on such a daunting task, but he has become more confident in his abilities over time.

“Whatever it takes, I’ll do it,” he says. “I know that working together as a team only strengthens our relationship and makes us both stronger.” Appropriately, the couples’ favorite song is “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” which, William says, “defines what it has taken for us to grow together over the nearly 40 years of our marriage and reminds us of what it will take for us to fly above our struggles moving forward.”

William says the fact that he’s been in the patient role helps him appreciate Lynn’s challenges and the effort she puts into overcoming them. “I look at her condition and her strength in a much more meaningful way now that I’ve been through the ordeal myself,” he says. “That allows me to be an even more effective and understanding caregiver.”

The couple’s unified commitment to overcoming cancer and enjoying life extends to the outside world, where the pair shares the same treatment clinic, enjoys the outdoors, takes part in community activities, and volunteers for various organizations. “Instead of walking around thinking, Why us? we’ve decided to help out others who aren’t as blessed as we are,” says William. “When you volunteer, you get exposed to other peoples’ challenges, and it makes you more empathetic to the needs and plights of others.”

Together for 40 years and going strong, the Dochnahls say that having cancer has helped them see the other person in a different light. “Lynn is my wife and friend, and now she is my patient,” says William. “Being both a caregiver and a spouse to her has only strengthened our relationship.”

Coping together

The physical, emotional, and logistical impacts of handling two cases of cancer under one roof can be overwhelming for even the most solid, time-tested relationships. As the Dochnahls learned, however, the hurdles can help solidify a marriage in ways that a counselor couldn’t match. Katherine Puckett, PhD, LCSW, MSW, MS, national director of mind-body medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America®, says that several factors affect a couple’s ability to manage in such situations: their ages, the length of their relationship, their stage of life (Are there young children at home? Are they empty nesters?), and how sick or well each patient is (Is it a minor case? Is it stage IV?).

The strength of the family’s existing support structure is also important, says Dr. Puckett. Lending physical and emotional support can go a long way to help, but that’s not always feasible when you are sick, too. “In most cases the other person will provide support, but if he or she is also in treatment, you have to become each other’s support,” she says. “That’s not always easy.”

Family members, neighbors, coworkers, and other individuals who are aware of the situation and likely to lend a hand can help fill that gap. “This may be a time to put your pride and privacy aside for a while and ask for help,” says Puckett, who suggests to couples that they consider offloading day-to-day tasks like grocery shopping, gift buying, and child care to individuals who want to help. “It can be hard to ask for help at first, but it gets easier with practice.” Taking time together to engage in activities that reduce stress can also help patients solidify their bonds and support one another. A short walk through the park, a meditation session, or a half hour of listening to music can help couples “get connected and enjoy some time together,” says Dr. Puckett.

The Dochnahls say that tackling one issue at a time and not letting the “big picture” overwhelm them have been viable coping techniques through their various cancer diagnoses and treatments. They also say that honesty and sharing have been their best policies by far. “Some people don’t want to talk about their challenges,” says William, “but the fact that we have cancer in common has pushed us to open up to one another and has moved us closer together.”

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