From care taker to caregiver

The caregiver tables turned for James Stew when his wife, Sherry, was diagnosed with breast cancer

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SECHELT, BC, Feb 11, 2015/ Troy Media/ – James Stew, 56, had successfully learned to cope with Type 2 diabetes and degenerative disc disease thanks to the love and dedication of his wife of 33 years. “Sherry was right there through it all,” he said. “She’s my best friend.”

Once, while trimming his nails, he cut off the end of his toe and didn’t feel a thing. “I was walking around on the hardwood floor, seeing blood, thinking our cat had gotten into a fight,” he said.

Later, he was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, “Every time I went back to work I herniated another disc,” he said. “But I was always on the go, I always had to get something done. Then all of a sudden, it all stopped.”

Caregiver roles reversed

His wife, Sherry, put everything into perspective for him. “Sherry stood behind me through everything,” he said. “She was always right there, helping me sort it all out.”

Then the tables turned.

In May 2014, Sherry was diagnosed with breast cancer.

James Stew became caregiver to his wife Sherry after she was diagnosed with breast cancer

Now it was his turn to provide the same support Sherry had provided him during his battles with his illnesses and he was determined to be there for her. But, he said, “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to begin to understand breast cancer.”

He read a book his daughter sent him, called The Breast Cancer Husband, from cover to cover. “It offers so many tips and ideas that, when we do come to a pass we can’t seem to get over, this book answers the questions for me,” he said.

Just as he had previously educated himself on all aspects of heart health, food and nutrition to combat his Type 2 diabetes, James now turned to educating himself on the aspects of breast cancer and how to become – in his turn – as responsible a caregiver as his wife had been for him.

Jim bought another book called The Intelligent Patient’s Guide to Breast Cancer to research and understand what his wife was going to be going through and how the substances she was going to be injected with throughout the treatment process were going to affect her.

Understanding what is happening, how it happens and why it happens, he said, reduces both his stress and Sherry’s fear of the unknown. “So instead of walking into this wall of, ‘oh my god, this,’ you go, ‘yeah, this next step is going to hurt, so let’s get prepared for it.’” He can now contribute to answering questions such as, “How can we reduce that pain? How do we handle side effects of chemotherapy? Do we want to study meditation or breathing techniques?”

James takes the books with him wherever he goes. They give him reassurance, and allow him to give Sherry the assurance she needs while she undergoes chemotherapy treatments. “That’s all you can really do,” said James.

Caregiver often has to ‘interpret’ patient’s condition

While always looking for signs that she will recover, both James and Sherry now only focus on the present. Well wishes from strangers and support from friends, he said, are always welcome, but it is his dedication to his wife that he takes pride in now, knowing that even the little things can be the most significant.

“Sherry’s a stoic little martyr,” he said, “and she’s doing exceptionally well. But she won’t say, ‘I need help.’” James often needs to interpret the look on Sherry’s face to understand the condition she is in and then uses what he’s learned in his books to help her cope. “I tell her every day that I love her, and I ask her every day, ‘are you okay?’”

Troy Media’s Family Ties’ columnist Barbara Webb’s bi-weekly column helps all Canadians – even if they’re not (yet) in a caregiving role – understand the toll that comes with being a caregiver in Canada. For caregivers, our profiles of those undergoing similar experiences will provide them with coping mechanisms others are using, and make them aware of support networks they can call on for help.

Tell Barbara your caregiver stories and help others to cope. Contact her at


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