'Til death do us part'

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This is part four of a four part series which will showcase different areas of a cancer diagnosis from early detection, to support systems, to those who receive a diagnosis and how such a diagnosis affects not only the person receiving it.

While one person does the physical work of battling cancer, the diagnosis can affect more than just them. Sometimes family members and friends step up to the plate to assist them with determining treatment and holding their hand as they take the steps necessary to hopefully receive the cancer free diagnosis.
For Lori Scott Martensen, she didn’t hesitate to pick the location and the doctors for her late husband, Mark, when he received his esophageal cancer diagnosis. She did, after all, work for at the College of Medicine at Ohio State University in the administration department. Scott-Martensen was the one who received the diagnosis and had to tell her husband.
“When he had the endoscopy, he was a little loopy afterward and the doctor met with me and told me they saw something,” she recalled. “The doctor was very apologetic, so that was kind of my key that it was something bad.
“We didn’t think there was anything — I mean my husband was running marathons — there was no indication that he was feeling bad other than he was having trouble swallowing.”
This was in 2012, and 10 months later Mark had passed, despite their aggressive approach to treatment. They were told that because Mark was young, 55, and an active, healthy man, that they shouldn’t look at the numbers because he didn’t fit the typical patient mold for this type of cancer.
“... we agreed to go as aggressive as possible because he wasn’t — he was a marathon runner, he was in great shape — so we agreed to go aggressive and we had no idea how aggressive would be,” she said. “Aggressive is the only way to be, it’s not pancreatic cancer, but it’s getting close to that in terms of the path it takes.”
Treatment for Mark, revolved around surgeries to remove his stomach, as well as six weeks of radiation treatment and four rounds of chemo treatment. According to Lori, the chemo was very hard on Mark, and even harder for her to watch.
Once a month, for four day, she said he would sit and watch the clock, waiting for it to be over. Going into treatment, Mark didn’t have a lot of extra weight on him, and receiving the cancer version of gastric bypass surgery took even more off of him, and the chemo treatment didn’t help. Lori said for the 96 hours he was on chemo, he wouldn’t move and he wouldn’t eat, he just got very sick.
He only made it through two rounds of chemo treatment before they decided that it was too much. A decision, she said, they made together.
“So I think he may have said, ‘if you want me to keep going I will,’ and I would never ask him to,” she said. “After two rounds of that, I would never ask him to do it again.”
Her role in his treatment was very much so as his primary caregiver. Stating that this was the, “in sickness and in health deal you sign up for,” when they got married, she took on a larger role in being his provider as well as taking care of the house. It didn’t strain their relationship, however, as she said they had always had a good partnership, splitting chores equally and this was the role she decided to take on.
And she wasn’t alone. They both came from large families, and had friends who also supported them during this time.
While it didn’t put a strain on their relationship, there were still stresses.
“Caregiving is stressful and you’re only doing it until he dies, that was the stress,” she said. “And that was hard, and you don’t talk to your spouse about that part. So it’s kind of just trying to wrap your head around it’s not getting better and what do you want to do with the time?”
She got protective, saying that he was sensitive to the idea of being a burden, but she was persistent in validating that wasn’t the case, once again claiming, “in sickness and in health.”
Once he passed, that’s when she said things were the worst for her. It was a short amount of time from healthy and happy, to really sick to gone. In the time after he died, she had to first cope with the cancer diagnosis, because it was something she didn’t have a chance to do before because she was busy taking him to doctors appointments, scheduling surgeries and being his main caregiver.
“But once that set in, and everything just spiraled so quickly after it started,” Scott-Martensen said. “I would say even six years later its a continual process of working through it. I had a lot of support, but what I didn’t have was friends that had gone through it. I was 40 years old, widowed and it’s not like your friends are not in that same situation.
“It’s an isolating experience to have to muddle your way through whether you have grief counseling, you try group therapy, you try different things to get you through the rough days. And then you learn self preservation, you learn what your coping mechanisms are and to this day, the bad days aren’t as frequent as they use to be, but you learn a lot about yourself after that.”
While he was alive, she learned how to do almost everything she could for him, in order to keep him out of hospitals. They had home health aids, but she had them teach her how to administer his medication and fluids. Even when hospice came around, she still was still his main caregiver, they were there solely to assist when necessary.
All the while, she is still working, albeit on a unique schedule, something she claims is a perk of working in a college of medicine, they tend to be forgiving when personal medical problems arise.
Now she spends time on an advisory board — made up of caregivers and survivors — at the The James. On this board, which meets quarterly, she reviews marketing material coming from administrators at The James and provides feedback based on their experiences with cancer and how the message may come across to some individuals.
“That’s been really good because that helps me think of cancer as a little bigger beyond his experience,” she said. “I definitely learned from it that every cancer is different. I think every person’s experience with cancer is different.
“... I was sitting next to this woman who had survived breast cancer and she was telling me her experience with chemo and she felt no side effects other than a little bit of fatigue and she continued working the entire time she was in chemo and she said, ‘I don’t understand what the big deal is with chemo.’ And that was really good to hear because I got to the point where cancer meant death because that’s what had happened to me and it meant bad, bad, bad and death.”
She also started volunteering with hospice, hoping to interact with younger patients battling cancer like she had with her husband. With her work schedule, that isn’t the group she gets. In fact, she says she rarely even gets cancer patients, but still has learned to love the individuals she does work with.
“You do what you got to do to get by,” she said about being a support system. “It’s very much day by day. My big advice that I tell people when I hear that they are going through it is to not think too far ahead because you spiral. You start thinking about if this happens or if that happens. It’s really important to on Monday you get through Monday and on Tuesday you deal with Tuesday.”