Throughout May, the Fulton Sun has been highlighting local people who have been impacted by cancer ahead of the annual Relay for Life of Callaway County event, which is being held virtually this year. The fourth installment of the series focuses on caregiver Beth Martin, whose husband, Robert Martin, died of skin cancer in 2019.
The level of commitment and effort it takes to take care of a sick loved one isn't something you can fully understand unless you've experienced it yourself.
"I always tried to stay positive — he never gave up and so I couldn't either," Beth Martin said.
Throughout her husband's illness, Beth was the one who set up appointments, researched treatments, and arranged travel and hotel stays, all while still working at Callaway Bank.
"It was hard to make all those phone calls, still trying to work in waiting rooms and airports and cars and hotel rooms and trying to kind of give everybody what I could of myself," Martin said.
It began in 2015, when Robert was diagnosed with stage three melanoma.
"It started off as a mole and ended up spreading to his liver, lungs, spleen, bones — it just went all over," she said.
For four years, he fought the disease, traveling across the country, from Minnesota to Texas, for treatment.
"There was times where I would work half a day at the bank, drive to St. Louis, get on an airplane, do appointments all the next day, fly back that night and go to work the next day," Martin said. "It was pretty hectic. It was pretty stressful. But we were willing to do anything. We tried everything."
In the beginning, Robert went through surgeries and treatments in Columbia, but the cancer continued to progress. Doctors suggested they try the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
For six months, getting treatment meant a tiring six-hour drive north to Minnesota, where Robert was taking part in a clinical trial. When he didn't get better, they tried other medications back in Missouri, before visiting the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida. The team there didn't have any other treatments, so he came home and tried hospice.
"Not going back and forth to the doctor was pretty huge — we could just be at home as a family," Martin said. "But at the same time, he wasn't ready to give up."
Beth was constantly researching clinical trials. Her research led the family to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Robert was accepted into a clinical trial in the targeted therapy unit. After a while of flying back in forth, Beth, Robert and their youngest son moved to Houston during summer 2019.
When it became clear the cancer was still progressing, the family came home.
"He died on a Saturday, and we had an appointment to try a new place in St. Louis the next week — he just wanted to keep trying," Martin said.
Beth and Robert were married in 2002. She worked at the bank, and he was a sheet metal worker.
"We met when I was a teller at the bank," she said. "And he would just come through the drive-thru and give me a wink, and it went from there."
The couple both already had children — he had two sons and she had one. Together, they had another son, who is still in high school.
Throughout Robert's illness, friends stepped up to help the family. In January of last year, friends raised more than $20,000 at a benefit dinner. Traveling for treatment would have been impossible without their help. Friends brought the family meals, mowed the lawn, watched the dogs and surprised them with new patio furniture. One friend had a bedroom in her house for the youngest Martin son to stay in.
"I don't have family in town, but I have friends that take care of me just like family," she said.
But there are some things no one can fix. Martin was exhausted.
"It's just a level of tired that sleep doesn't help," she said.
One bright spot was the time Martin got to spend with her husband on long car rides, people-watching in waiting rooms, trying new restaurants and talking.
"Parts of it were nice — him and I together," Martin said.
For anyone else in the same situation, Martin recommends spending as much time together as possible. For everyone else, it's important to talk with your spouse about what each partner would want in the event of a tragic illness — it's often too difficult to discuss these things while they're happening, she said.
Knowing the signs of cancer and acting quickly to get any potential symptoms checked out is also important.
"If you say it's melanoma, people might think, 'Oh, it's just skin cancer, that's nothing to worry about' or, 'thank goodness, it's not worse,'" Martin said. "But it is. I mean, I've seen it. I've seen what it's done. I think people don't take it seriously enough. If we would have paid more attention, if we would have done something about that a lot sooner, things would be a lot different."
For the past three years, she has been the accounting chair for Callaway County Relay for Life.
This year's Relay for Life event will be online during the week of June 7-12. Survivors and caregivers will share their stories on social media, and participants will log laps in their neighborhoods instead of all together to raise money. Luminarias are also on sale to honor the memory of a loved one at relayforlife.org/callawaycomo.
"I've definitely been way more involved since this happened because I see the importance of it in a different way now," Martin said. "Just in the four years that he fought, we saw a lot of new medicines come out. We participated in trials and they do work for a lot of people. I'm in those support groups and I see how the same medicines he took, they do work for a lot of people."