Brian Zahn: From real love to real loss, to learning to live again - for their son and because that’s what she would want!
Somewhere between classes, tests, parties, and everything else that goes on when young people go off to college, Brian and Melissa met.
It was 2005 on the campus of the University of Minnesota, Duluth.
They had their whole lives ahead of them.
“I met Melissa a couple hours before her 21st birthday on St. Patrick’s Day,” Brian says. “I remember how adorable she was. She was just so easy to talk to and you could tell that she loved life.”
Brian was a senior. Melissa was a junior.
“I graduated soon after we met, but I knew she was ‘all in’ on our relationship because she moved down to the Cities to be with me and to do her student teaching internship for her senior year. I was ‘all in’ on it as well.
"We always knew we'd get married. We'd talk about it for years, since we started dating in college.
"I finally popped the question a couple years after we graduated," Brian continues. “I consider myself a romantic, so I left a big heart of rose petals next to her car in her apartment garage, with a note that said, 'pedal your way up,' and I left a trail of rose pedals all the way up the stairs leading to her apartment.
"She followed the trail to her apartment and when she walked in, I was standing there with the ring, shaking like crazy, because, you know, I'm nervous.
"Of course, she said ‘Yes!’
Brian and Melissa were married on October 11, 2008, in Chisholm, Minnesota, on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota. Melissa was from the town of Mountain Iron. Their reception was held at Giant’s Ridge Golf and Ski Resort.
It was just a little lump
In 2011, Melissa noticed a small lump in one of her breasts.
"We were getting ready to go on our trip to Hawaii and were trying to get out of town, so she just planned to have it looked at when we got home, thinking it wasn’t a big deal," Brian says. "When we got back, she had the lump checked out. I didn't go in with her because we didn't think it was anything to worry about.
“I remember, later that day, though, she called me on the phone, and I could tell something was wrong. She was freaking out, saying, 'you need to be home - right now!'
“I'm asking her, ‘what's wrong? what's wrong?’ She tells me that she doesn't want to say it over the phone, then she just kind of blurted it out, telling me that she has cancer.”
A million things go through your head...
"I had a million things going through my head at the time," Brian says. "I didn't know what to think. I wasn't prepared for it. Who could be prepared for hearing that news? We were so young. We were trying to have a child. We had so many plans.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to have to figure this out.’ I will have to find out what the plan is.
"It was overwhelming. That's what I remember.
"You can't prepare for that kind of news, but my only advice to anyone who ever has to go through it, like I did, is not to overreact, for her sake. Try to stay calm and try to calm her down. Stay positive. You want to stay positive yourself and try to keep negative thoughts out of your head.
"Those negative thoughts will eventually find their way into your head over time and will go through your head every day - maybe for the rest of your life.
"But for her sake, at that time, right after the diagnosis of cancer, try to show the positive side.”
The treatment plan and the first ‘game-time’ decision
Melissa's treatment plan included double mastectomy surgery followed by multiple rounds of chemotherapy.
The Zahns had been trying to have a baby and Melissa’s doctors told her that she would not be able to carry a child while she was on chemotherapy treatments.
“Doctors recommended that we go the in vitro route and we were lucky enough to save off 10 embryos while she was going through chemotherapy. They gave us a week to decide before her treatments would start.
"We stored the embryos right away. That was almost our first 'game-time' decision.”
Melissa had a double mastectomy surgery in December 2011
"It was a hard recovery time for her," Brian begins. "She was tired all the time and I had to make sure that her drains were clear. After the surgery, she had to have a pouch on each side of her body that would collect the pus and other stuff that drained from where her breasts had been removed. I had to drain the pouches once or twice daily so that the drains would remain clear. I had to watch for infections.”
After Melissa recovered from the double mastectomy surgery, she completed multiple rounds of chemotherapy.
“After that, the doctors pretty much said, 'you're over it and we'll do a scan every three months.'”
Everything looked good!
For the first couple of years after her surgery and chemotherapy, Melissa had a CT scan every three months. Initially, Melissa’s scans showed positive results, with no signs of cancer.
In 2013, Melissa switched doctors and her new doctor order a PET scan for her.
"It was the two-year mark and they told us that if we're good and the cancer is clear for two years, we can probably start trying to have a child again," Brian continues.
A PET scan uses a radioactive drug (tracer) to show the activity in a patient’s body. The tracer shows areas in the body where cells are growing at rapid and unusual rates. These rapidly growing areas are often due cancer cells.
Results from the PET scan showed that the cancer had moved into Melissa's liver. She now had Stage 4 cancer, indicating she had cancer in multiple organs.
Melissa continued chemotherapy treatments to fight off the cancer that was growing in her liver.
In 2015, the Zahn’s faced the realization that Melissa would not be able to carry a baby because of her continued chemotherapy treatments.
“We wanted a child and decided that in vitro was the way to go. We got 10 embryos out of storage. We hadn't even thought about who could carry our baby when one of the teachers at the school where Melissa worked offered to carry our baby. She said, ‘I’d love to carry your child,’ before we had even started looking for someone. It worked out great!"
Henry was born on January 13, 2016, to proud parents, Brian and Melissa.
Treatment continued for Melissa, with mixed results
It was around Henry's second birthday, in late 2017, and traditional chemotherapy wasn’t working for Melissa.
“Things were going downhill,” Brian says. “Things just weren’t working. One treatment would work for a while, then it would stop working. Melissa would have bad side effects to the treatment and feel terrible.
“We had been up and down for so many years, so many months, and she was just tired. She was having bad side effects to the treatments.
“She’s usually a positive person, especially around other people she would stay positive. Behind closed doors, though, it was a different story. That’s where she would break down in front of me. That’s where I had to stay positive for her.”
The Zahns were running out of options and time with traditional cancer treatments, so they turned to alternative, homeopathic therapies.
Turning to alternatives therapies and prayers!
"She was fed up with the chemo treatments. They weren't working. She started alternative treatments and we were just praying that something would start to work,” Brian continues.
Melissa started alternative therapies towards the end of 2017 and for several months into 2018.
“Unfortunately, even with the alternative therapies, things just kept getting worse. Her body just started to slow down. You could tell her body was slowing down. I didn’t want to believe it, to be honest. I didn’t want to believe that we were nearing the end. She’d been tired before with different treatments, but she always bounced back.
“It was a Monday in early March. Her oncologist told her a couple days earlier that the next time she came in, she needed to bring husband with her. Her mom happened to be in town on that Monday, so she came in with us as well. During the appointment, her oncologist pulled me aside and told me that he’d ‘give her 30 days.’ The next day, we went to an appointment for her natural therapy and that doctor told me he didn’t think she’d live through the week.
“Melissa passed away the next day. It was a Wednesday. We had been telling people that if they wanted to come down and say goodbye, they could. We didn’t expect it would happen that fast.
“She passed away in my arms. Her mom and sister were there too."
Melissa Zahn lost her battle with cancer on March 7, 2018, surrounded by those she loved.
“Melissa was a faithful person. She knew she was dying. She told me she wasn’t scared.
“A couple days before she died, I remember she was very weak, laying on the couch, that’s about all she could do, and we were going through her healthcare directives. It was horrible. ‘Does she want to be cremated?’, ‘Does she want to be buried?’ and the whole thing - while she’s still alive. That was one of the worst things I remember about that time.”
Jack's reaches out
Brian was now a single parent, raising a 2-year old son on his own. His mother-in-law, Sherry, stayed at their house to help for the month following Melissa’s death.
Several days after Melissa passed away, Brian was contacted by Jack's member and co-founder, Justin Nicolay, through Facebook.
"I didn't know him at all," Brian begins. "Somebody he knew through Facebook knew me and my story, so he had heard of me. He reached out to me and said, 'I was in the same position as you two years ago.’ He had an almost identical situation, where his wife had passed away from cancer and they had a two-year-old son as well. He just told me about himself and said that he'd love to talk, grab a beer or something, just to talk.
"I was going through so much at that point that I'm like, 'I'm not going to do this right now.' I did contact him several months later and we met up and had a beer, and just talked. We both told our stories and he told me about Jack’s. It was great to connect with someone with our shared experiences and Jack’s has been helpful. I’ve been to several events and meeting guys who share my caregiving experiences is great! These are people I can connect with!”
Reflecting on a love lost and reasons to perservere
A lot has happened in Brian’s life in the two years since Melissa passed away. He’s taken on the role of a single parent and he and his son, Henry, have learned to navigate life without their wife and mother, Melissa.
They’ve bonded through the tragedy. They’ve moved on and have gotten on with life, because life doesn’t wait for anything, even tragedy – it just keeps moving, and possibly healing wounds that are deep.
“Melissa was my best friend and was such a great motivator for me. I miss that. She helped me better myself, even when she was at her lowest and fighting cancer.
"I just remember how caring she was. She always had a smile on her face and her eyes were something you would never forget. I loved how she would push me to be a better person.
“We loved to sing and dance together. She was always so fun and energetic to be around. Always smiling.
“I just loved how she was around kids and how she got along so well with my family.
"She was my world!
"When she died, part of my world died, too, but I had to stay strong for my son.
"Now, Henry’s my motivator. He definitely keeps me busy. Now, I just keep living every day for him.
“That’s what she would want!”
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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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