Allan Hammell has always liked to fix things. He’s good at it. It’s a trait that has served him well, in his personal life and in his career as an engineer and project manager.
“When I encounter a problem, that’s when I go into ‘problem-solving’ mode,” says Allan.
And that’s usually the end of the problem.
So, this past spring, when his wife, Hilary, was diagnosed with Stage IV Neuroendocrine Lung Cancer, he naturally started working, trying to ‘figure it out.’ He went into ‘problem-solving’ mode.
Says Allan, ‘at times, this is helpful and I’m usually able to solve the problem, but it’s been tough, because stage IV cancer isn’t a normal problem. It’s not something I can solve!”
Their cancer journey began in April, when Hilary noticed swollen lymph nodes along her collar bone, then she and Allan went in to see her doctor.
After 6 weeks of tests, doctors diagnosed her with a rare cancer, metastatic poorly differentiated neuroendocrine cancer suspected to have originated from the lung. Because her cancer was so rare, it took a long time to pinpoint the type of cancer that she had, and it took many tests. As the tests continued and the uncertainty of her diagnosis stretched from days to weeks to months, her health and her emotional state began to falter.
"Because her cancer was rare, it took many tests to figure out what type of cancer she had," says Allan. "They would start to lean towards one diagnosis and then the next test would make them lean toward the other. Each new test would take multiple days to set up and then we'd wait to get the results. Compounding the emotional strain was that the cancer itself was not found in one round of tests. After the initial finding of cancer in the lung and lymph nodes, cancer was found in the brain and then later on her spine. It was as if we were being conditioned to think every headache, pain, cough was cancer."
With each week of testing and uncertainty, Hilary was becoming more and more fatigued. She had aches and pains. Her nausea got to the point that smoothies were about all that seemed palatable. She was dropping weight.
"We were getting closer to the diagnosis with each ‘next' test, but in aggregate, it seemed like we were wasting valuable time. We were very eager to start taking some active steps to actually treat her cancer.
"On top of it all, Hilary is a physician, and although she's not an oncologist, she had a better understanding of the severity of the situation than most patients might have. I think this caused her to start dealing with a lot of the mental and emotional parts sooner than most."
As part of her cancer 'work-up,' Hilary had genomic testing, called next generation sequencing, which revealed a mutation (RET fusion) that doctors felt was 'driving' her cancer, so she was put on new drug that targeted this mutation. So far, the results have been good, but because it is such a new drug, and her cancer is so rare, it is unclear how long the drug will continue to work.
"Without this drug, I believe doctors would give her a year or two timeline," says Allan.
When Hilary was diagnosed with cancer, their community rallied around them. A friend set up a MealTrain account to provide meals for the family and Hilary's co-workers set up a lawn service for the summer so all the lawn care didn't fall on Allan's shoulders while he was caring for his family.
"It was so nice," says Allan. "Having the MealTrain meant I had dinner for the family every other day and I had one less decision to make and one less 'thing' to focus on. Having prepared meals was a relief. Having the lawn taken care of meant I had more time to 'parent' and take care of Hilary."
While caring for Hillary and their two kids has been a major challenge, Allan's passion for 'fixing things,' finding new hobbies, and keeping things as normal as possible has helped him cope with the stress of Hilary's cancer.
"Parenting during this journey and navigating the additional aspects have been a major concern for both of us," says Allan.
"I've tried to keep as active as possible, with the things I did before Hilary was diagnosed with cancer. I like all things bicycles, although I don't ride as much as I used to. My wife and I ride a tandem together. I occasionally pick up the kids on an electric-assisted cargo bike. At the start of the Covid lock down, I retrofitted electric motors onto my in-laws recumbent trike and bicycle so they could explore more and keep up with my kids.
"For the past few Christmases, I've gone all Clark Griswold, having a display of thousands of programmable LED lights that are sequenced to music. Each year, I look forward to having friends and neighbors over to unveil the lights for the season and then later seeing cars park to listen and watch the display."
Covid has introduced new things to Allan, and he's developed new interests, some of which have turned into new hobbies.
"Prior to Covid, the nerd side of me had been interested in 3D printing. And with the prices of printers coming down and some peer pressure from a friend, I took the plunge and bought a 3D printer. Since then, I've been printing both useful and absurd things ever since. The most absurd being mini T-Rex arms for chickens."
"Another Covid hobby was exploring waterfalls with my family. We've visited big ones, small ones. We've seen them in summer and in the winter, when they are frozen.
"Another hobby I recently adopted is exploring cocktails. Between randomly flipping through a book of cocktail recipes and watching YouTube channels that focus on cocktails, I've had no shortage of cocktails to try."
A Hammell Cocktail Adaptation
A cinnamon riff on the prohibition-era cocktail: 'The Bee's Knees'
Cinnamon Honey Syrup:
(Can be scaled up or down)
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup hot water ( hotter than hot tap, doesn't need to be boiling)
1 cinnamon stick
Put the syrup in a container, stir, let sit in fridge overnight
Cinnamon Bee's Knees:
1 oz Cinnamon honey syrup
1 oz fresh lemon juice
2 oz gin
Shake with ice, strain, serve on the rocks or 'up' (no ice)
Early into their cancer journey, a friend introduced Allan to Jack's Caregiver Coalition.
"I joined Jack's and was paired with a Jack-to-Jack coach,'" says Allan. "My coach has 2 kids, who are slightly older than mine. He lost his wife to cancer a little over a year ago and is essentially living on the other side of my biggest fear right now - losing my spouse, living through the overwhelming challenges of raising kids as a widower. Seeing that it can be done and that he can be happy makes that monster a little less scary.
"Friends and family are willing to discuss Hilary's health, but they are less eager to talk about the potential, less desirable outcomes.
"They might consider even talking about the 'worst' cases as 'giving up the fight.'
"Having someone to talk to who's been through 'it' has been helpful to me in navigating the initial avalanche that comes with receiving a stage IV cancer diagnosis. Having a coach who is open to talking about those 'worst' cases; being able to talk through some of my fears with him is something that helps me. It makes the whole thing not quite as scary. He has been through what I'm going through!"
Taking it one day at a time, with hope and a lot of help!
Allan has always been someone who could 'figure it out' by himself when a problem arose.
But when his wife, Hilary, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, he quickly found that it wasn't one of those problems that he could 'fix.'
It definitely wasn't a road that he could 'go it alone,' either.
There is no cure for Stage IV Lung cancer; there are only treatments that will - hopefully - bring her cancer into remission. There is only hope that remission will last a long, long time.
He suddenly found himself managing his household by himself, caring for his wife and 2 kids, on his own, in unknown territory, where he needed help - for himself and for his family.
His community rallied around him, providing meals for his family and help around the house so he could spend more time caring for his wife and children and a Jack-to-Jack coach stepped in and offered him much needed perspectives on what to expect going forward with Hilary's cancer. At a time when nobody else could relate to what he was going through, his coach was there for him.
"We are hopeful that Hilary’s medicine will continue to shrink the cancer and that the cancer doesn't develop a resistance for as long as possible.
"Having a wife prepping, at the age of 37, for the possibility of death takes its toll - even if recently the news has been more positive, the emotional scars are still there," says Allan.
"We don't know what the future holds, but we're glad her treatment is working and we are so blessed to have so many people be there for us when we need them."
NET cancer is an acronym for Neuroendocrine tumor. NET, or NETs, is an umbrella term for a group of unusual, often slow-growing cancers, which arise from neuroendocrine cells found throughout the body. Click here, for more information on NET cancer.
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By: Mike McGarry
Mike McGarry is a caregiver for his wife, Tracy, who has multiple myeloma. Mike and Tracy have 2 boys, Joseph, 13, and Jacob, 12. Mike has been a Jack's member since 2017.
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