Rich Anderson: Breaking down, reaching out, living each moment to its most, every day.
It was 2017, two years into their cancer journey, and Rich was feeling the weight of it all. He was struggling, trying to parent their daughter, Brielle, run a successful and growing business, take care of ‘business’ at home, and be the sole caregiver for his wife, Ali, who had colorectal cancer. Ali had undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation over the years and had just completed major surgery that had failed to cure her cancer.
He was starting to lose it.
That’s when a friend suggested he get in touch with a guy who ran a local nonprofit that supports men who are caring for a loved one with cancer. That’s when he met Kyle Woody, founder of Jack’s Caregiver Coalition. It was a meeting that changed his caregiving outlook.
He couldn’t do it all. He began to accept help.
He wasn’t alone. He found others out there who ‘got it’ and who he could talk to.
The weight became a little bit lighter.
Rich & Ali
They met in ‘94. He was a public auditor for an accounting firm, and she was his client. The attraction was immediate.
“I had the pleasure of interacting with her on a daily basis,” Rich says. “We continued to flirt during the audit and when it was done, one of us had the courage to ask the other one out on a date. I think she might have been the courageous one.”
Rich and Ali dated for several months.
“She was ready to get serious,” Rich says. “I wasn’t there right away, so we kind of separated for a while.
“But fate brought us back together in the late 90’s. We did some long-distance dating. I lived in Minnesota and she was living in California.”
Making his ‘wish list’
“When I think of chemistry, and my wish list of someone I’d want to spend my life with,” Rich continues, “Ali checked off every one of them on that list. She was incredibly smart and capable and successful and beautiful and fun and humorous and, you name it, she had it.
“And she looked great in her red leather mini skirt!”
Rich proposed to Ali on February 13, 2000. Little did he know at the time, but she had planned to propose to him the very next day. “I ruined all her plans to propose to me. My proposal was terrible – I just leaned over and asked her if she’d marry me. She had planned a beautifully choreographed proposal for the next day and I just ruined it.
“When I asked her to marry me, I think she was so surprised that she paused, and I was thinking, ‘man, are you serious that you’re going to say ‘no.’ I thought I had this thing locked and loaded.
“But she was thinking, ‘what should I do with the plans I had made to propose the next day?’”
She ultimately did say ‘yes,’ and they went through with her proposal plans the next day.
Rich and Ali were married in Bora Bora, Tahiti, on November 6, 2000.
“We did something small,” Rich continues. I invited my best friend and she invited hers. We then had the parties for everyone else when we got home, but the marriage was very private, the way we wanted it.
“We exchanged our vows on the top of a beautiful motu, which is a mountain made out of volcanic activity, in Bora Bora, at sunset. You can’t make this stuff up. It was an amazing thing.
“At the time of our marriage, we both had fairly successful careers. I spent the middle of the decade of 2000 trying to build up my company and was mostly unsuccessful, if I’m being honest.”
Rich ultimately bought the company and continued to struggle to make it profitable, resulting in a lot of debt on the company and his family. Ali worked out of the San Francisco Bay area in the early 2000s and transitioned to a lower-paying job in Minnesota.
Then came Brielle
In 2003, Rich and Ali welcomed their daughter, Brielle, into the world. “We had a great home, a failing business, a lower income job, so it wasn’t a great time for us financially, but personally we were doing great. We were happily married, we had a beautiful house, and a wonderful daughter.
“I remember when Brie was growing up, everyone would say, ‘oh, she’s great now, but wait until she gets to those terrible twos’, then it was the ‘terrible threes,’ and people kept telling us to ‘just wait,’ and we’ll see how much trouble a little girl will cause. That never really came. I won’t say she’s perfect, but she has always been and continues to be such an awesome kid and person.”
“We were struggling financially,” Rich says, “but we were happy.”
“We learned not to take things for granted. We spent a lot of time on our house and year after year, we spent a lot of quality time with our daughter, Brie. We travelled a lot. Ali is from California and has family there, so we try to get there 3 or 4 times a year."
Through the decade, Rich continued to struggle to build up his business. Then in 2012, he merged his business with another company. Since that time, the company has grown from 12 people to over 40 people.
“We finally began to grow in profitability,” Rich says.
By 2015, the Anderson’s were starting to find their groove.
Rich’s business, Imagine IT, was booming, the Andersons were travelling a lot, and they continued to upgrade their home.
In the late spring of that year, Rich scheduled a colonoscopy on the recommendation of his mom, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 1996. Rich had been experiencing some general GI issues over the years and he wanted to be safe and have them checked out.
At the same time, Ali was having GI issues, so they scheduled a colonoscopy for her as well.
“We figured that her symptoms weren’t a big deal, but then they started getting really bad. Since my appointment was scheduled before hers, I just asked the clinic if they could do her colonoscopy first. I thought I was probably the one who was most at risk because of my mom's cancer.”
Ali had her colonoscopy in June of 2015 and “they told her right there, in the office, that it was colon cancer,” Rich says.
“’Right there,’ they said, and they pointed it out to us, ‘is the cancer. I can tell you that you have cancer.’
“I remember taking her out to the car. She had been out cold from the procedure and the anesthesia. She didn’t remember the conversation by the time we got out to the car and when she was finally able to walk and understand what I was saying about the cancer, when we finally reached the car, we both lost it!
“She can hardly breathe, because she’s crying so hard.
“I’m crying, mainly because she’s crying and I’m so sad. We’re crying. What are you supposed to do when you hear the ‘C’ word? You might as well just say ‘death,’ because that’s how you take it – cancer is death!”
“And so, that was the beginning of our cancer journey. It’s going to be 5 years in two months.”
Ali’s official diagnosis was colorectal cancer.
“We spent the next period of our life dealing with the fear you feel. All we hear are worst-case scenarios, from everyone we talk to, from doctors to oncologists, to surgeons, to friends, to everyone else.
“For us, we’re really into holistic medicine, so all of a sudden we’re thrown into the Western medicine world. It’s like being thrown into boiling lava. All of a sudden, we’re confronted with things like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery as her treatments. It was a lot to take in and we had a lot of decisions to make, very quickly.”
Over the next two years, Ali was treated with chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the size of her tumor. She then had a surgery to remove her remaining tumors and was given a 95% chance of total remission and a cure to her cancer.
“The surgery was grueling," Rich says. "The doctors had to go in and take some things out that you wouldn’t otherwise take out and do some very invasive work.
“It was a long road to recovery. It was a very painful recovery and was going to take months for a total recovery. We were hearing things like, ‘good job!’, ‘Congratulations!’ from people.
“We did the surgery,” Rich says. “We went through all that hell, the recovery, then the cancer came back in three months. Yea, 95% success rate and only 5% failure and we get the 5%.”
“Going into the surgery, I was really struggling mentally and emotionally,” Rich continues.
“Before her surgery, things got pretty tough with the chemo and the radiation. There were infections. There were a lot of bandages and tubes and all sorts of medical things that none of us ever thought we were going to have to learn about. There were syringes and even dealing with medical supply companies.
“We had gotten to the end of our chemo treatments and the radiation. We had travelled to Reno for alternative treatments of a different kind of chemo. We were trying all sorts of alternative things.
“Then we had the surgery and it failed!
“I’m the CEO of a business and I’m also trying to run a company. I’m trying to be a parent. I’m trying to be a caregiver for my wife who has cancer, and I’m bringing her to all of her appointments. We’re travelling all over the country to visit friends and try different alternative treatments. Going to Reno, then to Mexico, then to Mankato and spending all sorts of money on alternative care that’s not covered by our health insurance.
“I was like a deer in headlights. I was sleep deprived. I was stressed out all the time. I’m emotionally compromised.”
And like so many guys, when offered help, Rich turned it down, saying, ‘I got it!’
People were offering help, but Rich would just say to them, ‘I got it,’ really not knowing how they could help him.
“I was at a point where I didn’t even know who was around to help and what they could do to help me,” Rich says. “Even if they knocked on the door and asked to help, I didn’t know what to say to them. I was paralyzed.
“Ali and some friends finally suggested to me that I should try to get some help through counseling, find someone who could hear my story and give me some advice. I left a message at a therapist’s office and he never called me back. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’d want to work with someone who’s not calling me back when I’m in the middle of a meltdown.
“A week later, I was standing in line at my favorite Dunn Brothers and a person I know from my daughter’s school taps me on the shoulder and asked me if he could introduce me to a guy he knew named Kyle. ‘He runs a nonprofit called Jack’s Caregiver Coalition. It’s for guys who are the primary caregiver for people going through cancer.’
“At the time, I thought it couldn’t hurt. I’d been looking for someone to talk to about what I was going through.
“I called him, and we set up a time to meet. I remember it like it was yesterday: Kyle and I met for coffee at JoJo’s Rising Wine in Burnsville.”
He was just a guy who listened to me, but he ‘got it!’
“We talked and he listened, then he said, ‘I feel your pain, brother.’ And he told me his cancer story and the Jack’s story.
“And all of a sudden, I feel a little bit better. I wasn’t healed, my life wasn’t awesome, but I finally felt like I have someone on my team now. And that’s what I needed.
“I could call my best friend and tell him all my troubles with Ali’s cancer, and, unfortunately, he wouldn’t ‘get it,’ because he hasn’t lived it. That’s what I got from Kyle and from Jack’s. That’s what I needed: someone I could call at any time and just say, ‘hey, I need to talk to somebody who understands.’ They know what you’re going through and they listen and help you.
“You don’t see that very often - that kind of help.
“I did ultimately get counseling help and a life coach, but Jack’s became that resource that backed me - that understood the issues I was going through.
“That’s when I finally realized that it was OK to accept the help people were offering me. So, I started asking for help. I started to reach out. I reached out for mental health and emotional help through counseling and emotional help. I asked for help around the house.”
“It’s OK to ask for help.”
“You need to reach out! You need to ask for help! You can’t just do it alone and get through the journey. Help might just be finding somebody to talk to. Or it could be somebody mowing your lawn so you can relax for a time. Or somebody plowing your driveway. Somebody to help you unburden your troubles.”
Keeping the fight alive.
Ali still struggles with cancer. She has a large tumor in the colorectal area and there is no Western medicine solution for it, Rich says.
“Ali is doing a number of alternative treatments right now,” Rich continues, “including high-dose vitamin C and alpha-lipoic acid and pancreatic enzymes to boost her immune system.
"She’s actually doing pretty well. Her energy levels are up, but they are still not great. She has some nerve pain due to the tumor pinching up against her sciatic nerve. And there are some other alternative things we’re doing as well.
“She continues to keep the fight alive. All of these alternative medicines have the goal of getting her body as healthy as possible so that it can fight off these cancer cells."
Parenting through cancer.
“Brie is 16 now and will be 17 in August. It’s almost been a third of her life that she’s had to deal with her mom having cancer,” Rich says.
“She doesn’t really remember much of life before cancer. That means that she doesn’t really remember her mom the way she was before the cancer. She doesn’t remember how her mom used to be an avid tennis player or a runner. Or that her mom was a business professional who did mergers and acquisitions. As a parent, that’s kind of sad. She just doesn’t have those vivid memories of her mom being an active person.”
“A lot of times throughout this cancer journey, I’ve had to be the single parent, so maybe Brie didn’t have her mom to talk to because she was feeling so bad. I’ve done a lot of the parenting myself, and I may not have been the best parent doing it all – I was probably distracted with everything else I was doing - as a parent and caregiver for Ali and running a business.
“But the silver lining is that I was able to spend some really high-quality time with my daughter. I might not have had that without the cancer situation.
"We’ve had some really good and powerful heart-to-heart daddy-daughter talks. We talked about life and death and we talked about cancer. We did homework together. We played Mario Kart together. She’s a great student and very active socially. She understands the situation with her mother.
“Cancer has definitely made her have to grow up quicker than she would have without it.
“She’ll look back on this someday,” Rich continues, “and realize that it helped create who she is. She’ll have the scars, like we all do, but hopefully she’ll be better for them.”
Living each moment to its most, every day.
“We’re still fighting the fight and we’re aiming for a long life, whether it’s a life with cancer or without cancer,” Rich says. "No one in our family has given up hope.
"We're still making plans to travel. We were planning to go to France in June. We're planning an Alaska cruise in August. We were going to go to California in July.
“We’re trying to live life and embrace every day in every moment, and if things resolve positively, great. If it resolves in the other direction, at least we can say we lived every moment to its most.
"Cancer has definitely changed our perspective on life but it doesn't define us. It is what it is. These are the cards we’ve been dealt. The best we can we do is try to make our lives fun, so we do puzzles, we watch movies, we walk the dogs, and we do work in the yard. But we don't sit and wallow in it - in the misery of cancer. We try to make the best of it and enjoy all our time together.
"We believe that everything is a gift and continue to live our lives that way!"
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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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