Erik Therwanger: caregiving, one goal at a time. Building on the momentum of hope.
Erik Therwanger is all about setting goals and meeting them, then building on that momentum to do even greater things.
He’s all about giving back, serving others, and looking forward, with hope, toward the future.
“I’ve had a lot of experience serving others in different capacities,” Erik says. “I start every day by asking myself, ‘can I make an impact in someone else’s life?’”
That motivation to serve led him into the Marines Corps in 1987.
“I took the direction of service to our country and I loved it!” Erik says.
When his tour of duty in the Marines ended in 1991, Erik enrolled in film school at the University of Southern California. Soon after, he met the love of his life: his wife Gina.
“I saw her on a dance floor in 1995 at a restaurant in Brea, California, and mustered up the courage to ask her for a dance,” Erik says. “We danced a little bit, and I guess the rest is history, because we’ve been together since.”
They dated and were married on Halloween 1998.
10 months later, Erik got the call to serve again.
This time, it was as a caregiver for Gina, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“She had just turned 27 and I was 30 at the time. We were so excited about our marriage and this new direction in our lives together. Like most couples, we had set a bunch of goals for our lives: we wanted to buy a house, have kids, travel the world, and save for retirement.
“Then, just 10 months after we were married, she got a call from her doctor and heard those words you never want to hear – ‘you have cancer.’
“At the time, I was working in the Film industry,” Erik says. “As soon as Gina was diagnosed, I decided to dedicate all my time to caring for her, so I switched careers.”
Into the unknown
Erik and Gina were new to cancer. They didn’t know anyone who had had cancer.
Erik didn’t know anything about being a cancer caregiver either.
“There was nothing formal, no parades or ribbons telling me that I earned the caregiver title.
“I wasn’t ready for it.”
He was lucky, though, because Gina’s oncology team gave him a good caregiving foundation.
“They trained me to care for her. They taught me to give her shots in the leg every night to boost her immunity. They taught me how to clean the exit wound from a Hickman line and how to flush it with saline every night.
“Her oncologist then did something special for me that was really unique: he pulled me into a room, and he asked me if I was willing to do whatever it took to help Gina get through her cancer treatments. I said, ‘of course I am. I’ll do whatever it takes.’ Then he said, ‘well, then I’m going to need you to keep her positive and to keep her spirits up and high.’
“He obviously knew what was coming, with the chemo and the radiation and the stem cell transplant. He knew how bad things were going to get.
“He knew that the emotional state of things would get very bad and that training me as a caregiver on the medical side wouldn’t be enough; that I would need to be there for her as a leader throughout her fight with cancer; I would need to be there to provide motivation, inspiration, and hope.”
Without it, her oncologist knew she might not make it.
On the road to a stem cell transplant
The initial treatments for Gina’s cancer were chemotherapy and radiation to shrink her tumors so she would be ready for a stem cell transplant. Doctors hoped the transplant would put her cancer into remission.
Gina underwent seven cycles of chemotherapy and a month of radiation.
None of these treatments worked.
“Her doctor finally sent her to Duarte, California, for one more form of chemotherapy. If the treatment worked, they would admit her to the City of Hope Hospital for a stem cell transplant to save her life. I remember, we met with the oncologist there and he basically told us that if this treatment didn’t work, she wouldn’t be here the same time next year. He was straight to the point.
“She broke down, and it was probably 30 minutes before she could compose herself.
“Luckily, the chemotherapy actually shrank the cancer a fraction of an inch and Gina was admitted to the City of Hope for a stem cell transplant.”
Stem cell transplants begin with the patient having their blood-forming stem cells destroyed by very high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy. The hope is that any existing cancer cells in the bone marrow will also be killed. The process of destroying stem cells also kills a patient’s immune system. Doctors then restore the patient’s stem cells with healthy stem cells. Until the new stem cells take hold and build up the patient’s immune system, the patient is extremely vulnerable to infections, sickness and potentially death.
While at the City of Hope, Gina stayed in a small 10’x10’ room for 30 days until her stem cells had taken hold and her immune system had been strengthened. During this time, Erik visited her but needed to scrub down every time he came into the room to prevent germs from entering the room.
“We hadn’t talked about goals for months.
“It was there, on the hospital bed at the City of Hope, where I had the idea to pull a goal from the backburner and share it with her.
“I decided I wanted to exude confidence for her, when she was at her lowest, and let her know that she would make it through. So, I said, ‘when you’re not sick anymore, let’s go look for that house.’
“That had been one of our goals when we got married – to buy a house - but because of all the chaos of sickness and cancer, it had been forgotten.
“When chaos hits, when things get crazy, I think the natural tendency is to push our goals to the side or maybe wait until better times.
The goal sparks hope.
“Even though she was extremely weak, I remember, when I brought up the idea of the house, she started pushing herself up in the bed.
“That look in her eyes was awesome. I saw that spark of hope! For a brief period, she stopped thinking about the cancer, about how terrible and weak she felt, even though we were in the bone marrow transplant ward at the City of Hope.
“All she was focused on was that house.
“It was more than a home. I was hoping that it would be an inspiration for her - a reason to fight.
“Just the mention of that goal brought her spirits up! And she started to get more positive.
“Then, she started telling me all about the color of the walls she wanted in the house, the type of flooring we’d have, the furniture we’d get. She was telling me who would come and visit us at the house.
“Right there, I realized how important goal setting was as a caregiver. Unfortunately, I was broke, and she was dying. If I wanted to keep her thinking about this goal, I had to break it into smaller, bite-sized pieces that we could accomplish over 90 days. I had no idea how I would buy that house, but I knew the only way we would ever reach our ultimate goal was if we broke it down into these smaller pieces.
“I did what any husband in my position would have done: I kept her spirits up, because that’s what she needed to stay alive and make it through these challenges."
Based on the ideas and concepts Erik developed at this time, he created a formula that he uses to this day to meet his goals – a formula that he wrote about in his first book called Goal Formula. Today, Erik teaches these ideas to people all over the world.
Gina recovered from the transplant and eventually went into remission, and the Therwangers did buy that home in Southern California. They met their goals!
Finding themselves in familiar places, doing familiar things, setting more goals, and creating more hope!
Over the past 20-plus years since Gina’s initial cancer diagnosis, she has continued to struggle with her health, having been diagnosed with basal cell cancer, breast cancer, pre melanoma, as well as having a cardiac arrest.
“Four years ago, when she was 45, Gina went into cardiac arrest and died. I did CPR on her until the first responders got there. They had to hit her three times with a defibrillator to bring her back.
“She was dead for 15 minutes!
“All the cancer treatments over the years weakened her heart, and although she eventually recovered from the cardiac arrest, her heart is still weak.
Gina was hospitalized and spent time in the ICU after the cardiac arrest.
She was eventually moved out of the ICU and a week later doctors placed a defibrillator in her chest to manage the rhythm of her heart.
“During her recovery period, we started setting new goals.
“We talked about creating a foundation for military families, something I had always wanted to do. As we talked, we narrowed it down to exactly what kind of foundation we wanted to create and eventually decided that our foundation would focus on military spouses.”
Not only Thinking GREAT, but doing GREAT Things for military spouses and families
It was there, in Gina’s hospital room, after her cardiac arrest, that the concept of The Think GREAT Foundation was born. The Think GREAT Foundation provides scholarships for military spouses and families. To date, this foundation has awarded over $25,000 in scholarships to military spouses.
Think GREAT actively works to empower military families by participating in family readiness programs, the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, the Marine Corps League, and other veteran organizations.
“Seeing firsthand the challenges and sacrifices that military spouses face, we knew it was time to help these courageous patriots get back on track with their own education and career goals,” Erik says.
Goal setting: Taking that forward momentum of hope into the future
“None of us who are caregivers ever asked for it. We didn’t want it. But we had to rise to the challenge. We had to care for our loved ones. We had to be leaders of their care.
“We have to guide our loved ones through what might be a fog. Sometimes we don’t even know where we’re going, but we know that they’re following us.
“And while we’re doing it, we have to stay enthusiastic and optimistic, we have to set goals for the future. We have to inspire them and give them hope!
“Goal setting allows us to look up from the current situation of hardship that we’re right in the middle of now and see a more positive future. Setting goals gives us the forward momentum that we need as caregivers.
“Every time Gina had a new health crisis, we would start again – we’d say, ‘here we are at point ‘A’ and we don’t know exactly where that is, but let’s get through this with the best possible attitude because we want to reach point ‘B’ with the best possible mindset.”
I went at it alone.
Although Erik now speaks of the great motivation and momentum that hope brings to caregivers and their patients, it wasn’t always that way for him. He struggled, too, as a caregiver. He, too, had to figure things out, navigate medicine and doctors, find his own motivations, and overcome financial challenges. He kept these things to himself, too, so Gina didn’t have ‘something’ else to worry about.
And loneliness - he had to figure that out as well.
“When I was first a caregiver in 1999, I didn’t know anything about caregiving,” Erik says. “I didn’t know anyone I could ‘tap’ as an experienced caregiver, who I could ask, ‘how do you do this?’ I was making it up as I went along.
“I didn’t ask for help. We felt like we were on an island by ourselves, not only as a patient but as a caregiver, too. There just wasn’t much support out there, so we went through the whole experience by ourselves, not because people wouldn’t have helped us, but because we didn’t know how to ask for help. We had friends bring food over in the beginning, but after a couple of weeks, nobody knew how serious things had gotten, and the help would stop. And we didn’t blast that message out to people we knew.
“We didn’t even know how to ask for help.
“The biggest sense of loneliness came from the fact that I didn’t have people outside of my patient, Gina, to talk to. I didn’t have people who I could share my caregiving challenges with.
“Sometimes, caregivers hold everything in. We feel like we can’t share the challenges we’re facing with anyone. We shoulder a lot, maybe more than we expected - more than we should - on our own. This takes a huge emotional and physical toll on us.
“When Gina was initially diagnosed with cancer, we weren’t in a great financial position. I had to leave my job to care for her and go into a career that I didn’t know anything about. We struggled financially. I couldn’t sleep because I had so many worries: my wife was sick, I worried about our finances and so many other things.
“When she would roll over in bed and ask me if everything was fine, I would just say, ‘yes,’ because I didn’t want to worry her.
“I took it all on myself back then. I didn’t think about myself – only Gina, who I was caring for. I didn’t have anyone I could share my struggles with; I didn’t have the camaraderie that Jack’s Caregiver Coalition offers to so many caregivers. Having someone to share these struggles with eases that burden.
“Being a caregiver is very much like flying in an airplane – when that oxygen mask drops, you need to put it on yourself first, take care of yourself, or you won’t be any good to the person next to you! Unfortunately, as caregivers, we do the opposite, often pushing the mask away and trying to help as much as we can - but without oxygen, we’re just getting weaker and no good to anyone!”
Coming soon: A blog from Erik Therwanger to cancer caregivers: The Goal Formula.
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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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Visit AARP.org/caregiving for family caregiver information and resources.
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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Rich Anderson: Breaking down, reaching out, living each moment to its most, every day - 5/4/2020
Bob Hinkle: Dodging darkness, finding light in an enduring love- 3/24/2020
Michael Greene: Cancer Caregiving but then dealing with life too. And then finding himself - 2/27/20
Alan Christensen: On living life in fast forward - 2/8/20
Chris Meuleners: happiness, sadness, hope, despair, and places between - 1/2/20
Tony Peterson: Between Seasons - 12/6/19
Aaron Hill: Talking and Giving Care - 11/17/19