Published on April 27, 2012

A Retreat from Cancer

Gift funds getaway for couples

As a police officer, George Ramos was accustomed to taking charge in times of crisis and being in control.

But when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, he found a situation beyond his control. He couldn’t change the fact that 45-year-old LaNae Ramos was in a fight for her life.

Quickly, the family’s stable world began to teeter. LaNae would need a radical mastectomy to remove her tumor-filled breast. The largest tumor, more rare and lethal, hid behind her chest wall only to be uncovered by an MRI. She would undergo six months of high-powered chemotherapy that made her so sick, her life became a blur of nausea.

During her treatment, she lost her hair, much of her memory, and her ability to care for her family. The family dynamics changed. George assumed the roles of caregiver and father and mother for the couple’s three children -- a son away at college and two daughters at home, ages 15 and 9.

Cancer became the family’s focus. Fear replaced the usual laughter. Scary thoughts went unsaid. At times, a false cheer whitewashed the new reality that cancer had brought.

“I put my feelings and emotions in check, and went on,” George recalls. “I felt I had to be everything... the pillar... the rock... everything for everyone. I was taking care of my wife, taking care of my kids, working and just trying to keep my head above water. It felt like the world was spinning around us, with all the focus pinpointed on cancer. At the end of the day, I’d think, ‘What about me? I’m alone.’ Then I’d feel guilty for even thinking that.”

Today, he better understands those caregiver feelings after attending the first Breast Cancer Couple’s Retreat in Moline, hosted by Gilda’s Club of the Quad Cities last winter and made possible with a grant from the Genesis Cancer Care Institute.

The retreat was one of several new programs funded by a $1 million gift from JoAnn Waddell, who specified the money be used to help cancer patients and their families. She, too, was a caregiver for her husband, Gene.

LaNae and George feel a connection to this donor, whom they’ve never met.

“Obviously, she’s a very special woman, and I’m in awe of what her donation has done for families like us,” LaNae said. “The couple’s retreat was enlightening. George and I hadn’t been away together since my diagnosis, and it was wonderful sharing, laughing and participating with other couples who have been on this journey, too.”

Amid couple’s yoga, art therapy and other activities, the couples broached issues of communication, intimacy and the side effects that cancer has on marriage.

“There have been so many changes to my body, it’s hard for me to feel positive about the way I look,” LaNae says. “The retreat helped us touch on subjects we were afraid to share for fear of hurting each other. George has always been my rock, and it humbled me to hear him say I was his hero.”

At the retreat, a truth emerged: Cancer brings a “new normal’ to life and a couple’s marriage.

George also received validation for his feelings as a caregiver.

“One of the speakers told us, ‘When a spouse has cancer, it’s like the couple has received the diagnosis.’ We rightly focus on the patient, and so the caregivers’ emotions and needs get pushed aside,” he says. “We don’t talk about how we feel with our spouse because we don’t want to add to their burden. At the retreat, I learned it was normal and OK to feel this way.”

The bond between the couples attending the retreat was so strong, they reunited again for a hockey game and have plans to bring their families together this summer.

“A new reality”

It has been almost three years, but George can easily recall the image of his wife crying on their bed the day she learned she had breast cancer. “At first, we thought we were dealing with one spot of cancer that would be removed with a lumpectomy. Then came more tests and more tumors, including one that was very rare.”

LaNae, who had never been sick for long, went downhill fast from the harsh side effects of her chemotherapy. She had just graduated from nursing school and had to put her career at Genesis on hold.

Today, she works part-time as a nurse in the Surgical Specialty Unit at Genesis, Davenport. She is cancer-free but copes with lymphedema and the side effects of tamoxifen. Her own experience has made her a better nurse and more aware of the extreme pressures faced by caregivers.

Cancer has strengthened her marriage, her faith, and her bond with family and the couple’s “wonderful circle of friends,” she says. “Cancer has taught me to live for each day,” LaNae says. “Each day, I wake up and think, ‘I get to enjoy another day with my family and children.’ The laundry and housework are less of a priority.”

George adds, “I’ve learned that cancer is beyond anyone’s control, but you don’t have to go through the journey alone. You can be the family you always were -- living with cancer -- and there will always be someone to help.”

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