August 3, 2020 By Erika R. Whitehead

Spotlight on Caregivers: Providing Support After a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

In August 2018, the world shifted for Kris Wright, his wife, Shanna Jo Wright, and his closest family members. Their parents and children joined the couple as they waited in uneasy silence in the doctor’s office. Before his appointment, Kris had been experiencing bouts of fatigue and difficulty breathing, forcing him to sleep on his side at night to find relief. Shanna, a registered nurse, continued to notice alarming symptoms from her husband and decided to listen to her husband’s breathing. As she held her stethoscope to his chest, she heard normal breath sounds on the left, but complete silence on the right. The couple traveled to a local urgent care facility requesting chest X-rays shortly after. Shanna and Kris stared in disbelief at the images in front of them. His right lung had collapsed entirely.

Kris waited anxiously with his family to hear his diagnosis. It wasn’t long before his doctor came into the room and delivered the news that Kris’ childhood Wilms tumor had returned. The words fell from his doctor’s lips and hit the ground with a sobering thud. “You need to go home and get your affairs in order; you have outlived your timeframe,” he said.

As Shanna sat next to her husband, she grappled with the words they just heard, the finality of the moment, and the uncertainty of what lay ahead. “That moment that doctor turned around and walked away, it was as if the funeral was happening right at that moment,” she said. Shanna watched as her husband, a former jail sergeant, broke down and began crying. “It’s really hard to talk about that moment because it was a seriously heavy moment. I’ve never seen him cry like that.”

For Kris and Shanna, this new diagnosis triggered painful memories of a cancer battle he’d already endured as a child. At 11 years old, Kris was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor. The cancerous tumor developed in his left kidney and metastasized to his liver and lungs. He underwent chemotherapy for three years and radiation therapy for six weeks. Shanna recalled the uncertainty of his initial battle with cancer, and his fight to stay alive. “He wasn’t even supposed to survive when he was a kid, he was stage four terminal and given his Make A Wish Foundation wish,” she shared. “He was placed in a clinical trial with 25 kids, and he was one of only two kids to survive that clinical trial.”

As the pair were preparing for his second battle with his Wilms tumor,  they were unexpectedly informed that he had been misdiagnosed. Further test results and scans confirmed that his Wilms tumor hadn’t returned, but at the age of just 42, he had stage 3B mesothelioma. Considering the grim diagnosis they’d initially received, and Kris’ fear of reliving a painful childhood battle that nearly took his life, the two tried to readjust and find the silver lining in his new diagnosis. “We didn’t really know too much about it [mesothelioma] at the time,” she shared. 

Five months after his initial diagnosis, Kris underwent invasive surgery to remove his right lung, right pericardium, and right diaphragm. As he recovered from surgery, Shanna remained at his side, offering her care and support. “My primary concern was always him,” she said. “My number one thought was making sure that he was breathing at all times. I would even wake up four or five times in the middle of the night and place my hand gently on his chest just to make sure that breathing was still happening.”

Shanna took a leave of absence from work to devote extra time to taking care of her husband and family during his diagnosis and treatment. Each day she managed his oxygen intake, cooked breakfast, prepared his medications, sterilized their home, managed his doctor’s appointments, prepared dinner, and more. Although it’s a challenge sometimes, she embraces it because it’s made her more kind, patient, and attentive to her husband’s battle.

“I just wished every moment that I could trade, take some of the burden off him and share it, share the pain,” she admitted.  “That’s hard. That’s hard to watch your loved one in pain, really difficult.”

During his diagnosis and treatment, Kris was surrounded by loved ones who offered their unwavering support. For Shanna, the support was invaluable as it helped her manage the responsibility of being his primary caregiver. Sleepless nights spent monitoring her husband’s oxygen intake were relieved by the help of his 24-year-old daughter, who would come over and clean their kitchen and hang out with her father. The time they shared together allowed Shanna to get some much-needed rest. Loved ones who prepared meals and delivered them to their home provided her more quality time to spend with her husband. “We had a very good support network, we still have a very good support network,” she shared. “I don’t think you can survive without it; I really don’t. You’d probably lose your mind.”

Through her husband’s battle with mesothelioma, and subsequent surgery, the experience has brought the two of them much closer. Shanna describes it as a more profound love; it’s a connection that she’s never experienced before. “We had a lot of talks about the difference between our marriage and our other marriages,” she said. “It’s not that they were less important marriages. We feel like everybody that we’ve loved in the past had their own important meaning and value, but for us going through this together has created a bond that neither of us has felt with any of our past relationships.” They’ve fought his cancer together, and are prepared to face any challenge in the future.

Shanna encourages couples who are beginning their journey with similar diagnoses to take each day as it comes. Having worried about events in the future, Shanna learned to live in the moment and enjoy each day she gets to spend with her husband and children. “Honestly, that was the biggest struggle for me, and once I started doing that, everything looked a whole lot more hopeful and a whole lot happier,” she shared.

Due to COVID-19, Shanna and her husband enjoy their time at home on their two-acre property as much as possible. Although her husband hasn’t fully regained his strength since surgery, he enjoys sitting outside watching his wife and children work in the yard. For Shanna, each new day brings a joyful opportunity to spend time with her husband and children. These seemingly small moments give her the courage to continue leading her family and supporting her husband.