My Dying Husband Taught Me How to Live

Lorraine Kember of The Mesothelioma Center

My husband Brian was the strongest man I have ever known.

At 50, he was as fit as he had been in his 20s, and I still marveled at how effortlessly he pushed, pulled and carried objects that would have tested the strength of two men.

He had boundless energy and never sat still for long. If he wasn’t working, the two of us and his mate would go fishing. Brian always took most of the load when it came to moving our 12-foot dingy on and off the trailer and carrying the heavy motor to the water’s edge.

Not surprisingly, he also caught the largest fish. This had a lot to do with his uncanny knack for knowing when a fish was taking his bait, but it was also because of the strength needed to haul the fish from a great depth and into the boat. Many times I managed to hook a good one but did not have the strength to reel it in.

Brian also was blessed with good health. In the 30 years of our marriage, he had never suffered anything more serious than a cold. He had never taken a sick day in his working life.

A Sudden, Irreversible Change

Something changed when Brian turned 52.

Although he appeared strong as ever, he tired easily and would fall asleep in front of the television soon after eating his dinner.

He caught a cold midyear that would not go away. When he began to experience shortness of breath, I assumed the cold had turned into a chest infection and encouraged him to visit the doctor.

“A course of antibiotics and you will be right as rain,” I suggested.

But my advice wouldn’t have helped his condition.

Brian returned from his doctor’s appointment with news that he did not have a chest infection. Instead, it was a pleural effusion that had caused the breathlessness. The doctor performed a thoracentesis to relieve his symptoms, draining more than half a gallon of fluid.

As soon as the fluid was gone, Brian felt immediate relief, but the cause of the effusion still was unknown. The doctor took a biopsy and told Brian to return in two days for the results.

Meanwhile, I turned to the Web to research his symptoms, learn more about pleural effusions and what caused them.

My online research showed pleural effusions can occur for a number of reasons, including mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer. After reading that, I instantly recalled Brian telling me he spent his childhood in the asbestos mining town of Wittenoom.

Suddenly, my blood ran cold.

Could this be the reason for his pleural effusion?

Surely not, I reasoned. Forty-five years had passed since Brian left Wittenoom, and we had been together for 30 of them. I could not remember him ever being ill.

Convinced his pleural effusion was because of something far less sinister, I did not mention anything to Brian about asbestos and mesothelioma. I did not want to worry him unnecessarily.

The Proof of Asbestos Exposure Is in the Results

His biopsy results were alarming.

The fluid drained form his body contained cancer cells. Further test were needed to identify the type of cancer.

It was terrifying to know Brian had cancer of any kind, but I clung to the hope that his cancer would be treatable and with a good chance of survival.

On the day he received his diagnosis, I was standing beside him when a young doctor approached us. He uttered the word that would signal the end of Brian’s life and change the course of my life forever: “Mesothelioma.”

Without thinking, I asked, “Asbestos?” The doctor confirmed my question and without the slightest hint of compassion said, “Three to nine months, I reckon.”

Brian said nothing. My heart ached knowing the pain he must have been feeling. It was a hell of a way to be told he was going to die.

It also was the worst possible way for me to learn the life we shared was about to end sooner than I expected.

I could not imagine my life without him, nor did I want to. I left the hospital that day determined to find a way of saving his life. I surfed the Web for days hoping to find a miracle cure for mesothelioma. I found none and had to accept that Brian would soon die.

Forgetting About Me and Focusing on Brian

Acceptance did not make it easier to bear.

It was torture knowing there was no cure for Brian’s illness. I could not stop thinking about his prognosis and began to grieve in anticipation of his death. I was no longer interested in the things that once brought me pleasure.

I put my retail business up for sale, stopped visiting my friends and concentrated only on caring for Brian. His well-being became my reason for living.

One of the things that worried me most was the pain he may suffer as his disease progressed. I put together a pain management routine from several online resources that proved to be invaluable. It helped me to keep his pain to a minimum — most of the time.

I wished I could do the same for my emotional pain. It was agony knowing that Brian was expected to die in less than a year. Time passed so quickly. The dawning of each day reminded me our time together was running out.

With my world upside down, I found it hard to act normal and rarely laughed without feeling guilty. There were many days when I asked myself, “How am I supposed to live my life when Brian is dying?”

Ironically, it was Brian’s approach to his death and illness that showed me the way to carrying on with my life.

Brian Taught Me Lessons in Life

Regardless of his prognosis, Brian kept his normal routine and went to work each day with the same enthusiasm as he had always done. Every chance he got he went fishing. He was not about to let mesothelioma take this pleasure from him.

I really admired his courage. He must have had his dark moments, but he never mentioned them to me. I came to understand that he did this out of love. He did not want me to be sad all of the time and must really have missed the happy, easy going woman I used to be.

There must be something else I could do for Brian besides keeping him out of pain. I could stop thinking about his illness and looming death, and concentrate on the life we still shared.

From that moment on, whenever possible, I put my grief aside and really enjoyed the things Brian and I were able to do together. We returned to our weekly game of lawn bowling and often visited our friends for a fun time playing a game of boules. I really loved these occasions, and it was so good to laugh in Brian’s presence again without feeling guilty.

And of course, we went fishing. When Brian steadily grew weaker, his mates and I took over the heavy lifting. After a long day out in the boat, I was exhausted, but if Brian wanted to go out again the next day, I could not refuse him.

Even if he wasn’t fishing, Brian loved to be near the ocean. Sometimes he and I would take long walks on the beach wanting nothing more than each other’s company and the feel of the ocean beneath our feet.

Brian survived mesothelioma for two years. The precious memories we made during this time continue to warm my heart and keep me going to this day.


Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net

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