Pam Jackson knew something was wrong and a visit to her doctor confirmed it. Her red blood cell count was down and her iron was low – nothing some iron pills wouldn't fix. Then she had problems thinking and remembering.
An appointment with a gastroenterologist led to a colonoscopy, even though she'd had a "clean" one only three years before.
"We found a tumor," the doctor told her.
"Tumor? Is it cancer?" she replied.
"My husband and I both thought he was going to tell us I had a bleeding ulcer."
Today, nearly four years since her diagnosis in November 2015, and after a regimen including surgery and chemotherapy, Jackson's been declared cancer free.
Integral to her recovery has been her husband, Donny, who along with their daughter was a primary caregiver.
"It's hard (being a caregiver)," she said. "It's especially hard if you lose that person."
Donny acknowledged the challenges he faced.
"You don't know what to do. There's nothing you can do. You've just got to comfort them, be here for them."
Today Donny has a new perspective.
"I'm more appreciative of what we have as a family, and how easy it is to lose a family member, in some cases, very quickly," he said. "I just thank the good Lord I've still got her with me after 38 years."
Doctors discovered cancer when Robin Swett went in for a prenatal exam. She was treated, her fourth child was born healthy, and all appeared to be good. A year and a half later she was diagnosed with cervical/uterine cancer.
Her mother, Judy Caudle, became the primary caregiver. She took her to medical appointments, went to her home to get the girls ready for school, kept the youngest, did house chores, and routinely cooked dinner for the family until Swett's husband got home. When she became bedridden, Caudle moved in.
In 2001, at age 33, Swett passed, leaving a husband and four young daughters. Caudle's emotions are still raw.
"It was her children that broke my heart so much," she said. "The little baby. Sometimes she would just lay on the floor with her hands out and cry, 'Mama! Mama!'
"You do what you do," she continued. "It's from the heart. It's not because you have to. It's because you want to. It's because you care, and because you love. I kept praying always. You don't give up hope, that faith that something miraculous could happen."
Seven years later, Caudle's husband, Richard, experienced a serious health issue on the job and was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.
"I knew things weren't right because he was losing so much weight," she said.
In less than two months he was gone, and as with Robin, Caudle was by his side.
"It's these times that really let you know what you're made of," she said, "how strong you are, how tough you are. Life goes on."
Both her daughter and husband were coherent until the very end, something she's thankful for.
"I got a chance to hold, to love, to talk about everything (with them). A lot of people just get a phone call."
Jennifer O'Gorman's husband, Pat, was having horrible headaches. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, he was given 18 months to live. He passed four years later, in 2017, at age 49.
"It was tricky," she said, "because our kids were young when he was diagnosed. There was kind of that juggle, do you take care of him first or do you take care of the kids first? He wanted me to be doing what the kids were doing, lead a normal life.
"He was pretty stubborn. He tried to do most of it on his own. He didn't ever believe it was going to get him."
By Jackson's standards a caregiver is more than that person by a patient's side 24/7, and it's time they got the recognition they deserved.
"Your caregiver is anybody who helps you through it," she said. "Someone who just comes in and talks with you, prays with you. Sits and visits. A hug. Pat on the back."
Simple things like bringing a magazine or dessert, sending a note or card, or a quick phone call can make a big difference in a cancer patient's life.
"Sometimes just somebody to sit and tell you what's going on out there in the world."
Jackson emphasized that instead of saying "I'm here if you need me," a caregiver needs to be specific. "What can I do? Can I get groceries? Take you to treatment?"
"Make it a direct question. A lot of times people don't like to ask."
"We weren't real good at asking for help," added O'Gorman, "and I think that's true with a lot of patients and caregivers. It's hard to ask."
Nevertheless, the O'Gormans received plenty of help, especially with the children. Her mother, who lost her husband to cancer, was very supportive, as were her sisters and the parents of her kids' friends.
"We call it the 'Little Village,' just kind of took the kids and whatever we needed to do."
Caudle had a large support network of friends and family.
"Everybody in this whole town was so amazingly wonderful," she said.
Along with her sisters, the neighbors across the street pitched in to help with the children. If she happened to be at a doctor's appointment when school let out, they'd pick up the kids for her.
"They were amazing, wonderful friends. They just took over to do anything I couldn't do or wasn't here to do."
All praised co-workers who gave unselfishly throughout their ordeals by helping with work schedules, stopping by to visit, and doing whatever else they could do.
People often feel ill-prepared to help, but Jackson said it's not that complicated.
"Just be there for them. You don't have to fix it."
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