Cancer treatment can be stressful on any relationship, but especially so when the patient becomes the caregiver. For Minneapolis couple Eric and Lyssa Oldre, the cancer journey was compounded by a risky pregnancy that required Eric to become a caregiver to his wife as the two fought for life – his and their baby’s – far from home at The University of Texas MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center in Houston. Today, the two reflect on their story of love, devotion and true partnership.
The Oldres have suffered more than their share of heartbreak – a stillborn baby a few years ago followed by Eric’s frightening diagnosis of oropharyngeal cancer (OPC, a head/neck cancer) earlier this year. But the latter also came with a blessing – Lyssa was pregnant again. Encouraged by his father – an MD Anderson head and neck cancer survivor himself – and by his research into a specialized form of therapy known as proton radiation, Eric began treatment in April at the Proton Therapy Center just as Lyssa entered the 20th week of her pregnancy. A few weeks into the therapy, Lyssa experienced complications, was admitted twice to a Houston hospital, and ultimately put on bed rest. Today, Eric credits proton therapy with enabling him to be strong enough to care for them both.
"It was challenging to be my own caregiver during my treatment. Cancer requires so much energy and time, I’d do some work, go to daily treatments, visit or help Lyssa, walk the dog, grocery shop, everything that needed to be done” says Eric. “With proton therapy, my side effects were reduced so I was able to keep up. And the flexibility my physicians afforded me was a godsend. They even moved a treatment to after midnight to ensure I’d be by Lyssa’s side for the arrival of our son.”
One of the more common and debilitating side effects of traditional head/neck radiation is the need for a feeding tube, according to Eric’s physician, Steven Frank, M.D., associate professor of Radiation Oncology and medical director of the Proton Therapy Center. “With proton therapy we’ve been able to dramatically reduce the need for this intervention among OPC patients,” he says. “This is just one aspect of the quality of life that is so important during and after cancer – especially for patients like Eric, who are young, raising families and who we hope will look forward to 30-40 years as survivors. The quality of those years is crucial.”
Lyssa went into labor a few weeks early and delivered in Houston. They are now the proud parents of a healthy baby boy, Evan. Eric, who remains disease-free, says that he likes to think Evan came a little early so that he could be there for the end of his cancer treatment.