Marathoner Armand Messina has been married to his wife, Shayne Messina, for 17 years. When the couple got the phone call in 2016 that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, “It was the worst day of my life. And I’m sure it was the worst day of hers,” he told Keys Weekly. “When that phone call comes, your world just stops.”
Thus began a blur of doctor appointments and juggling of work schedules to accommodate Shayne’s treatment plan, which included a lumpectomy, radiation and recuperation. Happily, Shayne has now been cancer-free for six years. But Armand still remembers vividly the fear and helplessness he felt during that time, when his wife was so sick that she couldn’t get out of bed.
“Time stops. You get tunnel vision. I had my businesses and six employees,” said Armand, who owns an electrical contracting business and a hurricane shutter manufacturing business. “I would drive with her to doctors’ appointments in hospitals for surgeries. Spending time with them is important. It’s a very difficult situation, because you don’t know what to say to your spouse. You sure as sh*t don’t want to lose them. From my experience, it was just being there. You just hold their hand. That’s all you can do, but it seems to do the trick.”
Armand is one of the silent heroes: the loved ones — family and friends — who take care of the women and men with breast cancer. They are most often referred to as caretakers, but the Susan B. Komen organization has another name for them: “co-survivors.” Of necessity, the patient living with breast cancer is the center of all the attention. But the silent heroes play an important role.
“If I didn’t have Wilada, my life would have been so much more difficult,” said Islamorada resident and artist Maxine Trainer. She was cared for by her best friend Wilada Bailey when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019. She is currently cancer-free after a mastectomy, chemo and radiation. “We’d be lost without the carers. They’re doing everything, the feeding, the driving, the carrying the burden. They carry the stress that we can’t.”
And carrying the stress can have an emotional cost on the caretakers.
“Emotionally, it’s very difficult for men,” said Armand. “You feel helpless. There’s no rulebook. There was nobody for me to turn to.”
When asked who he reached out to for support, Armand said, “No, I did not reach out for support. I’m not that kind of guy. Most guys aren’t. Would it help most people? Probably would. You’re the first person that ever asked about that.”
But Armand did seek advice from family. “My nephew is a doctor, which was helpful. If I had questions I’d go to him.”
Bailey said her support from the First Baptist Church of Islamorada and also from her friends was crucial. She would talk and pray with them, especially during such times as when Maxine lost all her hair.
“When she was having chemo, we were driving from Miami and her hair flew out of her scalp out the car window,” recalled Bailey. “By the time we got to the Keys from Miami, she was bald. That was really shocking. They say you’re going to lose hair, and until you lose yours, you think you won’t. But it happened.”
Bailey also credits her faith for getting her through this time.
“I did a lot of praying, and I had a lot of faith in God that he was gonna heal her,” she said. “I feel it was a miracle that she was able to still get up and do her artwork (during her chemo).”
Mercy Hiller of Key West is an administrator at 21st Century Oncology and co-founder of the Cancer Foundation of the Florida Keys. Her mother, Marta A. Gonzalez, lost her battle with breast cancer in 1991. The building that houses 21st Century Oncology is named after Gonzalez, and Hiller was inspired to be Key West’s first radiation therapist due to the lack of the treatment on the island when her mother was battling the disease.
Hiller described tending to her mother’s infected wound from the mastectomy and hearing her mother cry in the shower because she didn’t want to break down in front of Hiller or her father.
“I didn’t reach out for support,” remembered Hiller. “One of the things I did do was I prayed the rosary every day, even when she was in ICU. That’s really what got me through the whole thing. And friends and family were rallying around us.”
Hiller recommends that co-survivors who are currently caring for loved ones with cancer be sure to take time for self-care.
“Take time for yourself. And do not feel guilty about that. Even if it’s just a walk, going to lunch with a friend or spending an hour in meditation. You can’t take care of anyone else if you’re not taking care of yourself.”
But Bailey points out a silver lining.
“I’m grateful that I was able to survive it and be there for Maxine,” she said. “That makes me happy. Don’t be afraid to be a caretaker. It’s very rewarding.”
Caretakers for a loved one with cancer can call Hiller’s non-profit, the Cancer Foundation of the Florida Keys, for direction: 305-294-7300. The Susan B. Komen organization also has a helpline: 877-465-6636.