The Meysembourgs came into 2018 on a high note.
Their daughter, Mila, was born 3 months earlier, in October, and Nick just became partner in a sales company he’d worked at for over 11 years.
They were on a roll.
They'd met 10 years earlier, in 2008, while Nick was on a routine sales call.
As he tells it, he walked into a customer’s ‘brick and mortar’ location and immediately noticed a cute, attractive brunette who was working in the store.
He remembers it like yesterday.
She was the the Inside Sales Manager and he was trying to make a sale.
From Nick’s point of view, the attraction was immediate and, being the diligent salesman that he was, he was determined to get to know Natalie.
“At one point, I must have walked the aisles in her store for about 45 minutes, not knowing why but just knowing that I wanted to spend as much time there as possible. I'm sure at a certain point she was wondering, 'what the heck this guy is doing.'”
After several work e-mails, Natalie made the 'first move' from 'business' to 'personal.' (From there, it was 'game on!')
Their first date was on May 20, 2008, at a Twins game, something that is one of Nick’s real passions.
They were married exactly 3 years later, to the day, on May 20, 2011, in the Sunken Garden at the Como Park Conservatory.
It was bittersweet because Natalie’s mom, who passed away from cancer many years earlier, was not there to share their joy.
“I knew right away when I started dating Natalie that this was the woman I’d spend the rest of my life with,” recalls Nick. “There was an instant connection, an attraction from the first day we met.
“We balance each other out perfectly and make a great team in so many ways.”
He knew early on in their relationship that breast cancer could impose itself at any time in their lives. Natalie had a history of breast cancer in her family. She had lost her mom, two aunts, and grandma to it many years earlier.
Her mother was 26 when she was first diagnosed. She had a lumpectomy and radiation at the time. She was diagnosed again when she was 34 years old in the opposite breast and had a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Again, the cancer went into remission only to come back 14 years later, when she was 49. This time, it was metastatic. She died 3 months later when Natalie was 23.
Her mom had tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation, so when she died, Natalie and her sister were tested for it as well. They both tested positive. Natalie was 24 at the time.
Most inherited cases of breast cancer are associated with the mutations of two genes: BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene one) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene two). Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. The function of the BRCA genes is to repair cell damage and keep breast, ovarian, and other cells growing normally.
A small percentage of people (about one in 400, or 0.25% of the population) carry mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. A BRCA mutation occurs when the DNA that makes up the gene becomes damaged in some way.
When a BRCA gene is mutated, it may no longer be effective at repairing broken DNA and helping to prevent breast cancer. Because of this, people with a BRCA gene mutation are more likely to develop breast cancer, and more likely to develop cancer at a younger age. The carrier of the mutated gene can also pass a gene mutation down to his or her offspring.
Because of Natalie's family history, she was diligent in having a mammogram and breast MRI, alternating every 6 months. To Natalie, the tests were just part of her life, so, in June 2018, when she went in for her annual mammogram, she didn't think anything of it.
“I didn’t go with her then," recalls Nick, "because we thought it was just another routine exam."
The next day, Natalie received a call back that doctors had 'seen something' and wanted her to come back for an ultrasound test.
When she had the ultrasound done the next day, her doctor told them that something 'didn't look good in one of her breasts,' so she ordered a biopsy.
“I remember that day, that time, when she had her biopsy,” recalls Nick. “It was Friday, June 15th, the Friday before Father’s Day, and we were going to have to wait for the results until Monday.
“This was going to be a momentous Father’s Day for me because it was going to be my first Father’s Day as a dad.”
“It was a very strange weekend. I’m an optimist. I wanted to keep Natalie positive, but it was a very long weekend of waiting and silent reflection on what lies ahead of us. We were both worried and trying not to think about the worst-case scenario.”
The results of the biopsy came in on Monday: Natalie had triple negative breast cancer (TNBC).
“Life was really coming together for us,” says Nick. “Things had been so good that year with our 8-month old daughter, we both had good jobs, we lived in a nice house, I had taken the next step in my career, and now we got this terrible diagnosis and the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet.”
Triple Negative Breast Cancer is an aggressive form of cancer, but Natalie's cancer had been found at a very early stage, so they were the Meysembourgs and Natalie's doctors were optimistic.
Natalie would begin chemotherapy, to shrink the tumors, followed by a bilateral mastectomy, which would remove both of Natalie’s breasts. Because the cancer was aggressive, her doctor wanted her to start treatment as soon as possible.
“Right before Natalie started treatment, we went up to the cabin for the Fourth of July weekend with some friends and broke the news to them.
“That was our last weekend before things got real!”
Natalie started chemotherapy the following week, on July 6th, 2018. She had four rounds of AC, with treatments every other week, which caused her to lose her hair, followed by 12 rounds of Taxol, once a week for 12 weeks. She finished her chemotherapy the day after Thanksgiving 2018, and had a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery on December 17, 2018.
After the surgery, doctors just said, “We’ll see what we need after that.”
Natalie took six weeks off work after the surgery. During the initial weeks after the surgery, she had two drains attached to her body to allow fluids to drain into bags that hung on either side of her. It was Nick’s job to clean the drains to prevent infection.
Nick had a lot on his plate: caring for Natalie and Mila; taking care of ‘everything’ around the house that the two of them used to take care of; working full time; and going to all Natalie’s appointments with her.
It was a lot for one person to take on alone, and they were hesitant to ask for help, even though the responsibilities were slowly weighing the both of them down.
“We really don’t like to ask for help, even when we might need it,” says Nick. “We’re terrible at accepting it, and so, when we had family and friends asking us right away how they can help us, we weren’t sure about it. People were asking us if they could bring us dinner or if they could mow our lawn or if they could watch Mila when Natalie had the surgery and I stayed overnight in the hospital with her.
“We just didn’t know what to do. It was so hard accepting the help!
“But, at a certain point, you realize you need to accept the help. You can’t do it all alone.”
It was then, right in the middle of it all, that Nick started saying 'yes.'
“I realized that in order to be a good giver, you need to be a good receiver. We became better at accepting help, accepting the offers that were coming in from so many people. At one point, I kind of stepped aside and realized that my real job as a caregiver was to coordinate all this help!”
“Natalie had some close girlfriends who came to help, and her sister and dad came up to help us. They would sit with her at chemo, which was so helpful, because then she wouldn’t have to be alone.
“It was really cool that people stepped up and would do that for her, do that for us!”
Nick’s work stepped up as well. His company gave him the time and space he needed to take care of Natalie and his family.
“I travel for work a lot and I was able to almost completely stop traveling while we worked through the treatment plans. I was able to work from the home office so I could be with her when she wasn’t able to work.”
Even with all the help he was receiving, though, Nick was still feeling burned out. He was getting pulled in so many different directions. He was feeling alone, adrift, unsure sometimes of which way to go.
During this time, while Nick was trying to ‘keep everything else between the lines,’ he went back to a pamphlet that was given to him by their healthcare navigator when Natalie was first diagnosed; it was for Jack’s Caregiver Coalition.
“I read the pamphlet about Jack’s and shot them an email, thinking I’ll never hear back,” recalls Nick.
The same afternoon, he got a call and answered it:
“‘Hi, this is Kyle from Jack’s. What’s your story?’”
That’s how it started. It was Kyle Woody, founder of Jack’s returning Nick’s inquiry. The two talked and Nick was paired with Paul Gartzke, another Jack's member, whose wife was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Paul lived nearby so they met for a beer, ‘just to talk.’
“It was so nice to just connect with someone who could totally relate to what I was going through. No judgments, no looks of sympathy. A lot of time, we have those conversations in our heads, because no one else understands them, but to have that dialogue out loud and in person was great!
“It’s not often that you can talk to someone who has such stunning insights – it changes everything!
“You leave these conversations and you realize, ‘I’m not alone in this!’
“Realizing that there are other people who are going through, or who have gone through, exactly what I’m going through right now, is so liberating, so freeing. He had the same fears and hopes and everything else, including all the messiness of caregiving, that I had.”
One of the greatest pieces of advice Nick got from Paul was this: whatever you’re doing – whether you’re at work or at Natalie’s doctor appointment, that’s where you’re supposed to be; you’re doing exactly the right thing; you are doing what you should be doing.
“Don’t worry about anything else and don’t doubt yourself. Be confident and trust yourself.’
“That – that! – gave me a new peace of mind: that I shouldn’t doubt myself. It helped me a lot in the balancing act I was in the middle of - with work, caregiving, parenting, being a husband, and everything else. I can’t worry about what I’m not doing. I need to focus and put all my efforts into what I am doing.
“It helped me to be fully present in the moment – in every moment – rather than just being halfway in it and worrying about everything else that I can’t control.”
Getting back to where they were
Things have started to settle down for the Meysembourgs. Mila is getting older and after several years, Natalie's checkups haven't caused reasons for concern. Although they don't like to say the cancer is 'cured,' they are both optimistic.
Natalie’s doctors are ‘cautious but optimistic.’ Being a BRCA1 carrier, Natalie is at a higher risk for ovarian cancer. Much like her bilateral mastectomy after chemotherapy, she had a total hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy in September as a preventative measure.
She is still recovering; still not back to 100%, but Nick says the recovery is going better than past surgeries and treatments.
“We’re getting back to where we were, still trying to 'keep between the lines' but feeling a little more confident in our ability to do some of the normal things we could do before the cancer.
“I feel like I’m getting back to where we were at the beginning of 2018.
“We’re in a good spot right now!”
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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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