Cancer caregiver finds support, acceptance in online support group

Shelly Ward is a trailblazer. As one of only a few female airplane pilots with the U.S. Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration, she conducts aerial surveillance that helps dismantle drug trafficking rings and brings criminals to justice.

“My job is never dull,” she says. “I’ve got to be on my game at all times. I can’t afford to become rattled.”

But when Shelly’s husband, Kerrick, received a rare pancreatic cancer diagnosis last month after overcoming non-Hodgkin lymphoma four years ago, she began to feel overwhelmed.

“We law enforcement types keep a stiff upper lip. We’re not used to asking for help,” she says, “but I knew I needed to talk with someone.”

Contrary to her nature, Shelly signed up for a virtual support group for caregivers of cancer patients. Facilitated by MD Anderson’s social work counselors, the group began meeting online during the coronavirus pandemic, as MD Anderson took steps to protect its patients, caregivers and workforce members from COVID-19.

“The pandemic presented an opportunity to transition our support groups from an in-person to a virtual format,” says Teresa Van Oort, clinical program manager for Social Work. “MD Anderson’s is leading the way by offering one of the broadest support group selections in the country right now.”

Members log onto their computers twice a week to join virtual sessions led by a social work counselor. Together, they discuss the emotions involved in caring for someone with cancer, including fear, sadness, financial stress, physical exhaustion and guilt.

“All the members in the group are on the same journey – they understand,” says Van Oort.

Initial cancer diagnosis: Burkitt lymphoma

Shelly, for one, knows how difficult that journey can be.

In 2013, her husband was an energetic and seemingly healthy, 6-foot, 4-inch policeman when he was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a rare and aggressive type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

For six months, doctors at a hospital near their Seattle home pumped powerful chemotherapy drugs into his bloodstream.

“They said they were following a protocol pioneered at MD Anderson in Houston,” Shelly recalls.

The treatment worked. A PET scan conducted after chemotherapy ended showed no signs of cancer in Kerrick’s body.

For two years, he continued undergoing scans to check for recurrence. If the disease came back during that time, it would likely be fatal, doctors said.

“How’s that for living on pins and needles?” Shelly asks. “For two years!”

Finally, in 2016, Kerrick was declared cancer-free. Jubilation and relief reigned in the Ward household.

“Now we could get out from under this dark cloud and start living again,” Shelly says.

The couple moved to Houston when Shelly was offered a job transfer.

“The doctors in Washington spoke so highly of MD Anderson, so when we had the opportunity to move here, we went for it,” Shelly says. “If Kerrick’s cancer ever came back, this is where we wanted to be.”

Their decision seemed almost prophetic when Kerrick was diagnosed with cancer again in early April.

A second rare cancer diagnosis

This time, Kerrick was found to have an aggressive type of cancer called small cell carcinoma that typically starts in the lungs. But Kerrick’s cancer started in the pancreas, then wrapped itself around his bile duct.

“Less than one person in one million receives this diagnosis each year in the United States, so there’s very little data about treatment options,” says Arvind Dasari, M.D. “Fortunately for Kerrick, as of now, there’s no visible sign that the cancer has spread to other parts of his body.”

Kerrick is undergoing three rounds of chemotherapy. After that, his medical team will decide what’s next.

“We don’t know if the chemotherapy will work, but we have to try,” Shelly says. “My husband is very sick right now. He’s struggling.”

Caregiver support group brings self-acceptance

Shelly, too, is struggling.

The “high” of her husband’s initial remission, followed by the “low” of his second diagnosis, has left her feeling emotionally drained and exhausted.

“I’m not one to break down,” she says, “but I completely fell to pieces when I learned he had cancer again.”

After years of remaining stoic, Shelly’s glad she finally joined a support group.

“I was uncomfortable at first,” she recalls. “I didn’t want the focus to be on me.”

During her first meeting, the social work counselor asked probing questions, including, “What are you most afraid of?”

Shelly responded tearfully: “I’m so afraid of losing my husband, my best buddy for 30 years.”

Answering the question was extremely difficult, she says, but also therapeutic.  

“I just needed to verbalize what was deep inside. Saying it and facing it head-on helped me turn a corner.”

The support group has also helped Shelly realize the magnitude of her responsibilities as a full-time employee with a demanding job, a caretaker of an ill spouse, and a mother of a 17-year-old son who’s preparing for college.

“My social work counselor asked me how I’d view someone else who did all that,” Shelly recalls. “I answered, ‘I’d say she’s Superwoman!’ Then I realized, ‘Hey, that’s me.’”

Seeing herself in this new light has helped Shelly be less self-critical and more accepting of the fact that she’s doing a good job.

Gratitude for online support group format

Juggling multiple roles leaves little time for Shelly. The support group is her “me” time.

She now looks forward to the meetings that once made her uncomfortable. And she’s grateful they’re available online.

“There’s no other way I’d have time to participate,” she says. “At some point I hope to meet everybody in person, but that’ll be down the line.”