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'Game on': Battle against cancer leads to new outlook | SUSAN G. KOMEN SPECIAL SECTION

The Duppenthaler family. - Courtesy image
The Duppenthaler family.
— image credit: Courtesy image

When asked what a co-survivor is, Jeff Duppenthaler doesn’t have an answer. What he does know is that he and his late wife, Carmen, approached her battle with cancer and life the same way: ‘game on.’

Carmen, a stay-at-home mom, was a writer. She journaled often and when she learned she had breast cancer, she used words to explain how she felt and how she would tackle this unexpected challenge. It was 2009 and Carmen was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40.

Her husband Jeff is still finding inspirational messages in journals Carmen left behind, months after her death in January 2014.

The saying ‘game on’ is now the approach Jeff takes to living life with their two children without Carmen.

“After she’s gone is where the real battle begins for the caregiver or spouse because now it’s (taking) over the household,” said Jeff.

Cancer, he explained, was something the couple tried to keep to the side of their everyday lives, trying instead to be positive and keep life as normal as possible.

“For me, just staying positive, keep the faith and try to have fun in life still,” said Jeff explaining his mindset during his wife’s five-year battle.

“Still you got to smile; you got to try to be happy. Have to kind of put that cancer a little bit onto the side. You deal with that when you’re at the doctor’s office and everything else.”

It wasn’t easy, he said. The couple tried to keep their two children Carly and Kyle, now 14 and 12, engaged and aware of what their mother was going through.

Thirteen years into their marriage, love is what kept them bonded, Jeff said, even through tough times. Jeff learned to approach life differently as did his wife as she fought her illness. After a reoccurrence of her cancer developed about a year later, Carmen started a blog, on which she captured some of the many insights the battle gave her.

“She was able to face her fears,” Jeff said.

Carmen was extremely afraid of all doctor’s offices and also kind of a germaphobe, her husband said.

He recounts one story of a trip to a doctor’s appointment that gave him insight into his wife’s new approach to life.

They were on their way to Swedish hospital in Issaquah when a large raindrop hit the windshield in front of Carmen. The raindrop was heart-shaped and Carmen quickly grabbed her phone to take a photo of it.

“Look, someone is sending me love,” she told Jeff and later wrote in her blog.

From this and other experiences, Jeff learned he had to slow down and smell the roses, so to speak.

“The signs are there for you if you just slow down and look,” he said. “I learned that from her.”

Initially he helped her with the research of finding the oncologists and specialist she needed. Then he helped getting her to all of her appointments, barely missing any of them. Eventually, as her energy waned, he stepped into more of the household roles Carmen used to fill before she became overwhelmed by her illness.

“She’d have panic attacks, but she was able to face her fears and her faith was strengthen and her faith in God, her spirituality and just watching for these signs,” said Jeff. “I think that is really important that I learned.”

He didn’t realize it at the time, but the gradual shift in their responsibilities weened him, he said, into the role that he has now in the household.

“I was my own counselor in a way,” he said. “You just kind of mentally talk yourself through things.”

Today, he and his children are preparing for the annual Komen Puget Sound Race for the Cure. They have participated as a family ever since Carmen was diagnosed in either Seattle or Bellevue and also in Relay for Life teams and for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer in Bellevue.

“Your life is more of a moment by moment basis; it’s hard to plan or do anything,” Jeff said of his life now. “I’m pretty much going 100 miles an hour, non-stop.”

The challenge now is being very tired, finding it hard to sleep with a lot of things on his mind, whether work- or home-related.

“We have to be there for each other now,” he said.

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