The first time he met her, she laughed in his face.
It was a cold, January morning in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, in 1992. Dan Cramer was working for a political campaign at a Democratic meeting at the local Holiday Inn, and between presentations, he spotted what he describes as a ‘really beautiful young woman’ sitting at a rival campaign table. He walked up to her, in his brand-new suit and tie (something that made him stand out at the mostly informal event) and introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Dan Cramer. I don’t believe we’ve ever met.”
That's when she laughed in his face. That was it or so he thought.
Dan grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in Hyde Park, in a big, multiracial neighborhood - the same neighborhood where President Obama makes his Chicago home. It was a big change for him when he came to the small town of Northfield, Minnesota, in 1985 to attend Carleton College. He was used to the crowds and the diversity of a big city. He remembers, too, the bitter Minnesota winters and the cold, even for a kid who grew up on the windy shores of Lake Michigan.
From an early age, Dan was interested in politics. It was something that his grandfather, who had dedicated his life to public service, and his parents instilled in him. Both his dad and mom used to take him ‘door knocking’ for political candidates when he was a kid.
During his senior year of college, in 1988, Dan met Paul Wellstone, a political science professor. Wellstone introduced him to a whole different side of politics. He taught Dan that politics was not just about elections, but that it was also about social movements and grassroots organizing. Wellstone's lessons struck a chord with Dan throughout his life and would be the impetus to start his career as a community organizer and to continue to pursue his interest in politics and social justice. Many years later, it inspired him to found his own consulting firm.
Paul taught me so much. One of the earliest things I remember is him saying (even before he was a candidate and was just my professor at Carleton) is this: 'You can’t separate the life that you live from the words that you speak.'
Dan graduated from Carleton College in 1990. He then moved back to Chicago to do community organizing, only to return to Minnesota less than a year later work on the first Wellstone Senate Campaign. At the time, Wellstone was considered a true long shot to win against a well-funded incumbent.
“I never really thought we could win, but I thought that working on this campaign would be great experience,” Dan remembers. “Winning that campaign is probably one of the two or three things, along with meeting and marrying Cassie, that really changed the trajectory of my life. The campaign taught me that if you organize and engage people, and if you excite them about politics, then you can make a real difference. It doesn’t matter how much money you have.”
Dan followed the freshman senator to Washington to help with his work in the U.S. Senate. He soon found, however, that working on Capital Hill wasn’t really his ‘cup of tea,’ so he returned to Minnesota the following year and began to work on a new political campaign.
Dan isn’t one to give up on something he believes in.
That trait served him well in life and in his professional career where he co-founded Grassroots Solutions (www.grassrootssolutions.com), a consulting firm that helps nonprofits, philanthropic foundations, political campaigns, and advocacy organizations figure out how to get more people involved in their causes.
It's this same perseverance that kept him trying to make that impression on the woman who laughed in his face on that cold January morning in 1992 at the Detroit Lakes Holiday Inn.
He saw ‘something’ special in Cassie Walsh that day, but it took him a couple weeks before he was able to figure out how to find her and see her again (no internet back then) and find out what it was.
This time, he made a better impression.
The two dated on and off throughout most of the 90s, got serious, and eventually moved in together. Dan proposed to Cassie in 1997 at their dining room table, over a re-creation of the first meal he had ever made for her (on Valentine's Day back in 1992). It was Balsamic Chicken with carrots, mushrooms, and a risotto that his mom had taught him to make.
Cassie is Catholic and Dan is Jewish, so they had a multi-faith wedding that was presided over by a good friend of theirs, a Minnesota judge, at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul on May 24, 1998.
“Cassie just has an energy to her and a sparkle in her eye,” Dan recalls. “She’s gorgeous and she’s got these amazing blue eyes. I don’t think it was necessarily love at first sight when we met, but we both felt powerfully drawn to each other. There are so many things about her - her curiosity, her sense of humor, her distinctive sense of style that I love and have always loved.
“More than anything else, though, she is so completely loyal to her family and friends. She’s just fierce towards the people she loves, and we’ve had such a great, great love affair in our life and in our marriage, even with the cancer.”
Something was ‘off’ with Cassie in the summer of 2002. She wasn't feeling sick. She didn't have a lot of symptoms. She just noticed that something "wasn't right" one day, so she went in for a consultation with her doctor and was diagnosed with very early-stage non-invasive breast cancer (or DCIS).
“Of course, we were freaked out when she received her initial diagnosis,” Dan remembers. “But it never occurred to us that she wouldn’t beat it!”
Cassie had a mastectomy and her doctors thought, 'that was it,' - that she was free of any additional cancer.
After the initial scare and surgery, when things settled down, her cancer appeared to be gone. Dan and Cassie went back to their ‘old’ lives, and Cassie continued to have mammograms every year.
Three years cancer-free became five years cancer-free, then ten years cancer-free.
“I really believed that we had gotten past Cassie’s breast cancer,” Dan recalls.
Sixteen years after her initial cancer diagnosis, in the Spring of 2018, though, Cassie wasn’t feeling well. She was tired and just wasn’t feeling 'herself.' Then, she started having trouble walking up the stairs without breathing heavily and began to feel a tightness in her chest.
She visited her doctor, who recommended an X-ray which led to a CAT scan then a PET scan. The results of these tests led to a 'very serious conversation' with a new doctor (an oncologist), who informed them that Cassie had metastatic breast cancer in both of her lungs.
“Even now, more than two years after that day, I still feel disoriented," Dan says.
“I frequently describe it as if I am now lost in my own life.”
Cassie began treatment immediately. The treatment has slowed the growth of the cancer in her lungs, but they both know that her cancer will never be gone completely.
“Only 25% of people with metastatic breast cancer usually make it five years,” Dan begins. “It’s a very tough disease. We know that she very likely has limited time left.
“Metastatic breast cancer is unrelenting; it never goes away. There might be days Cassie feels better than others, but the cancer is always there. She never feels like she felt before. On her best days now, she has something like a third less energy than she had before she had cancer.
“We made some decisions early on about how we would spend our time together,” Dan says. “Cassie decided that she didn’t want to work. I cut back on my work, so we could spend more time together. We are fortunate to have some resources that we had begun to save for retirement. We thought that would be 15 or 20 years from now but since that is not likely to be the case, we decided to use those resources now, for the time we have left together.
“Right after Cassie was diagnosed, I had breakfast with a good friend and mentor who told me, ‘Dan, you have a new job now. You’re a caregiver.’ She was right. And the way I think about it is that my job is to not just be a caregiver but to be the best caregiver possible.
“And our job as a couple is to try to figure out how to live our lives as fully and as full of love as we can.”
Getting out of their heads
In 2019, about nine months after Cassie's diagnosis, Dan and Cassie started a blog called ‘Meaning & Stuff.’
"It is our attempt to work through all the issues of Cassie's cancer, together, and to start an online discussion with each other to make sense of Cassie’s cancer. The blog is written from each of our point of views and discusses the impact that cancer has had on our lives as a couple. In it, we search for some sort of meaning for Cassie's cancer and try to offer readers a glimpse into challenges, discussions, and insights as a couple that have come from Cassie's cancer. We talk about the big challenges as well as the everyday challenges, but also speak of the things that cancer can't and will never take away from us," says Dan.
In a recent blog post, entitled, ‘Being a caregiver,’ Dan shared some of the pains and fears he has as Cassie's caregiver:
The person I love most in the world has late stage cancer. Being a caregiver to her is the hardest and most important thing I have ever done in my life. I hate that I have to do it and I wish more than anything that Cassie didn’t have cancer but I am grateful that I feel equipped to play this role. More than anything else, being a caregiver to me means being present. Being around. Listening. Loving. Being there with Cassie, not always to help with something (though that is part of it) but just being in it with her. It’s hard but it’s beautiful too in a way I can’t really describe. It’s also unrelenting. There is never a day she doesn’t have metastatic breast cancer so there is never a day off from being a caregiver. I don’t say that because I am looking for sympathy; just to state that’s the reality. You are always on (even when there’s down time, you are still on heightened alert).
Coming to ‘grips’ with Cassie’s metastatic breast cancer
Dan struggled early on after Cassie’s 2018 diagnosis of Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. There were so many things that were new to him; things he needed to come to grips with; things that challenged him more than he’d ever been challenged before; things that scared him to the core; things he had never considered.
Being a new cancer caregiver was overwhelming. He felt alone.
Around this time, Dan was given a pamphlet for Jack's Caregiver Coalition from Minnesota Oncology, where Cassie was being treated.
He was intrigued and e-mailed Jack's right away. Jack's paired Dan with Dustin Cesarek, co-founder of Jack’s, who is caring for his wife, Kim, who also has Metastatic Breast Cancer.
“I met Dustin for lunch. I learned so much in just that one lunch. I felt less alone knowing that there was someone else out there who had and was going through the same things I was going through. That’s a lot of what Jack’s offers to other caregivers – the opportunity to see that they’re not alone.
“A couple months later, I attended one of the Jack's Klatches in Minneapolis. I was blown away from the very first meeting I attended. People were so welcoming to me. I felt like I belonged. The Klatch was more than a support group, I remember thinking. At least it wasn’t what I had imagined a support group would be like. At the Klatch, people would just talk when they had something to say, and it was oriented towards sharing and learning.
"I’ve always found that these Klatches are incredibly powerful. The men and women who participate are caregivers and they share so much wisdom. I’ve learned so much. There’s never been a Klatch where I haven’t learned something and that makes me better as a caregiver. It's also why I volunteered to start facilitating the Jack's Cancer Klatch, and that continues to be an incredibly meaningful experience for me.
“The primary benefit I’ve gotten from Jack’s has been having a mentor like Dustin and getting to know so many other men who are caring for loved ones with cancer; men who are also wrestling with what it means to be a caregiver, too, just like me. The Klatches are a real anchor of my support system.
“To new caregivers, I say, ‘ask for help! Don’t do it alone.’"
As he reflects on confronting Cassie’s cancer diagnosis, Dan likens it to climbing a mountain – something he did in 2013, when he joined some friends in trying to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s over 19,000 feet at its peak. During the climb, Dan often found himself thinking about the “real” mountains in his life and the things that he turns into mountains. Things like work stress and daily setbacks, that while hard, really aren’t mountains, like Cassie’s Metastatic Breast Cancer. That, to Dan, is the biggest mountain he (and she) have ever confronted, and they are navigating it together.
Dan and Cassie are planners. They don’t like to leave things to chance if they can decide on them ahead of time.
Earlier this year, they wrote about their preparations for that likely, sad future in their August 24th blog post entitled, ‘The Death Plan.’ In it, they discuss Cassie’s completion of her own ‘Death Plan,’ which is a list of questions that each person completes, stating their own wishes for how important matters will be handled leading up to and after their own deaths. One's Death Plan give a person the chance to have a 'say' in important matters relating to their death, such as the funeral home, one's obituary, the actual room where they will die, who will be with them, and so much more.
Cassie completed her Death Plan earlier this year and they reviewed it together while they were vacationing in California, discussing the choices she made on important matters that would happen in the weeks and days leading up to and immediately after her death.
Completing Cassie's death plan together has given us a lot of peace. I have not YET done mine but am working on it. It’s counter-intuitive in that you don’t want to think about death and dying, and it’s hard to do, BUT once you work through it you feel this sense of peace and comfort.
The last two years have been the worst in many ways for Dan and Cassie.
Dan still often feels like he doesn't recognize his life anymore. He’s still disoriented.
That’s been especially true recently as Cassie and Dan were thrown an unexpected curveball. Cassie learned that she had to have major back surgery to deal with a herniated thoracic disc in her back. It was not only causing her real pain but it was pinching her spine and the risks of paralysis were “significant” absent the surgery. The surgery itself was long and hard and the recovery is even longer and harder.
So now, they are navigating a reality that includes a pandemic, post-surgery pain, a really uncomfortable back brace to help with the recovery and all of that, of course, is on top of Cassie’s Metastatic Breast Cancer, which is an unrelenting as ever.
They've had to confront a future that will likely not include both of them for as long as they previously thought.
And that is heartbreaking.
In some ways, the tragedy of Metastatic Breast Cancer has brought them even closer together - maybe like never before. They've had to circle around each other, lean on each other, care for each other - especially in this time of a global pandemic, when it often feels especially lonely.
They’ve found solace, peace, and hope in each other’s strengths, and they've fortified each other’s moments of weaknesses.
They’ve accepted that their future is now, and they know what it means for Cassie to have MBC by living out their lives together - still deeply in love - the best way they know how.
Nothing will ever change that!
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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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Most people think of family caregivers as women taking care of their aging parents or children. What many don’t know is that 16 million family caregivers in this country are men. AARP is on a mission to break the stereotypes and ensure that all family caregivers, including men, get meaningful support. Men, often due to societal perceptions, avoid talking about their caregiving situation and don’t feel comfortable talking about the emotional and economic challenges of caregiving. However, caregiving is tougher than tough and seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
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