Podcast Description

How can you accelerate your grief healing? One widower finds that a service mission and renewed purpose could do just that.

In this interview we explore Alex Hamlow’s love story and grief journey to learn how to better cope and heal.

Interview Highlights

  • Introduction
  • How you met your wife – The Irish Pub 1:45
  • Building a Life Together  3:51
  • A diagnosis of MS 6:19
  • Another challenge – Cancer – 10:54
  • It’s all OK – 20:01=
  • Connecting the dots with the Candi Hamlow Foundation 22:33

Tom  0:10  

My guest today is Alex Hamlow. He’s a widower brother, and he lost his wife Candi, his companion of 34 years to cancer. And that was just a short time ago. Alex was the Chief Commercial Officer at KayRon medical, a longtime commercial executive for GE Healthcare. And now he runs a consulting advisory and coaching firm serving b2b healthcare leaders to support others with autoimmune disorders on their cancer journey, which his wife Candi did experience. He started a foundation in his wife’s name, and that is the Candi Hamlow Memorial Foundation. And we’re here to learn more about Alex’s journey and his new mission with this foundation. welcome Alex Harlow.

So I’d like to start with how your love story began. How did you meet Candi?

Alex Hamlow  1:37  

Thank you for this conversation.It was in Southern California, at an Irish Pub restaurant in 1989, February 17 1989. A, bit of the backstory there. Ironically, neither of us were planning planning to go, I was with a work colleague, she was with her sister. It happened to be the 17th of the month. Everybody thinks of St. Patty’s Day. Well, for me, it turned out my friend who was an Irishman,I’ll leave his name out of this, but let’s just say his last name was Micky. He learned that on the 17th of every other month outside of March, you know, all these folks that are interested in Northern Ireland,go to the Irish pubs and eat oysters and talk shop. 

So I didn’t know that and I was dragged out. And it turned out that Candi’s sister dragged her there, knowing that she was looking for, I think, a good Irish bloke herself. And so she ended up there as well, we, we both minding our own businesses, I was being pummeled in darts by these Irish guys, you know, ringers. So I was having to go over and pick up the tab at the bar. 

And I kept going by this lovely little lady who seemed to be talking to this quite older man. And I was just kind of looking and wasn’t sure what was going on there. Anyway, a few minutes later, we’re getting ready to sit down to eat. And here she’s in front of me again. And we struck up a conversation. They were leaving, I was heading to eat. And he just handed me a number and said, Hey, I’d love to talk to you later. And a few days later, we met. The first time together we spent like nine hours together and that started what was just an amazing friendship, a real development of a soulmate that I had nearly 34 years with.

Tom  3:47  

Oh, that’s amazing. Tell us a little bit about the life that you built together.

Alex  3:51  

Yeah, well, ironically, it almost didn’t happen. Within just a few months of meeting her. I actually had gotten a work promotion, you know, young in careers, our early 20s. And that work promotion included me moving from Southern California to Solon, Ohio, and with a potential promise of another promotion to follow, but didn’t know timing, etc. And she was a Southern California girl who grew up near Disneyland, had all her friends, all her family, everyone local had actually never really traveled. And here I was, out on my own since 17 and all that. 

For me, it was just another adventure. I went off hopeful but not knowing. And lo and behold, that work transfer actually ended up being relatively short. In corporate America, even back then particularly in the 80s, there were buyouts, mergers and move ons. So just a few months later, they sold the operation in Ohio and I ended up moving and had the opportunity go back to California. 

And she was actually a big part of that but it wasn’t Southern Cal it was up in San Francisco Bay Area. And that actually created a tough one because she came up  to be with me, but had never left home. She was 21 at the time. And it was tough. And it was really tough. It almost didn’t last a year, before she went back, and she was actually planning to leave, and something stopped her. 

We were, you know, we were committed, but we hadn’t committed. Yeah, it was just one of those moments for us. And we had several of these that just said, if we’re in, we’re in, we’re going to doit,  so she stayed. And we ended up spending almost three and a half years together before we actually got married in November of 1992. 

That started us on that journey. But we were both you know, budding career professionals moving fast. And in 1998, I had the opportunity as the Chi to get job transfers back to Southern California, which was kind of a promise, get her back too close to her family. and such. So we did that. 

We were chasing those careers. And we were on that hamster wheel, I don’t think we had probably had more than a four day vacation. You know, since we’ve been together. And then a night in roughly 2005 We had a huge scare. And huge scare was essentially we thought Candi was having a heart attack, her left side was going numb, she was tingling, all the classic symptoms. That landed her  in the hospital. And it was for four days before she finally came out with a diagnosis that was ultimately multiple sclerosis. And it was amazing because she was truly already a walking miracle. With multiple sclerosis, it’s it’s it actually means multiple scars, which is a brain and autoimmune disorder of the brain, that your nerve endings essentially eat away and they become dead spots. And of course, we are a big electrical system. Everything we do via the electrical system, and hers it was being shut downt, she had nine lesions in the right side of her brain and should have been blind, should have been more impaired, but instead just had some mild weakness on her left side. 

But what that did is it changed our outlook in terms of what it meant to live together to be together, the appreciation of each other. We had been married. And it’s kind of crazy. We had been married about 13 years and had never gone on a really, truly proper extended holiday together. And so from that day forward, we said what are we saving for a future that may never happen? Let’s live fully. And we did. And I am so grateful for that. That was one of those moments, you know, in time that you can’t, if it would have gone any other direction, I believe what our relationship wouldn’t have been when it was. I also would say that that recommitment to each other also led us back to a deeper commitment in our faith. It wasn’t just about the world and about work and about money, and status and all those things. It was about something more, something more purposeful in life. So that also started that journey for us, which again, I think was a lifesaver for me. And I think it allows us to allow me to move on but it also allows, unfortunately, less than a happy ending together to actually be there. I said, you know, a blessing. 

Tom  9:05  

Certainly more peaceful. Right, because you had been through this scare before. And I think that recommitment is important. I know that many of us, as we look back at our relationships with our late wives, a lot of us have regrets. There were resentments that built up. There’s issues that occur. And many of us didn’t have that recommitment opportunity that you had not that I’m sure you would wish it on anyone. But that was really special that you guys had that and you kind of knew that you put the orbit that you two had around each other as being the most important things in your life as opposed to the orbits that many of us put in place those around our children, those around our careers, whatever else it might be.

Alex 9:48  

It’s such a great point. I mean, it’s a natural thing, right? The world kind of puts us there, and it’s about status and stuff and excitement and You know, let’s be honest, like, what can I do that others can’t? How much? Can I know, you know, experience etc? Yeah, but for the sake of what? Yeah. And it was a blessing to be able to recommend.

But it was mutual recommitment not just to each other, but to purpose. And faith is one that really carried us through ongoing hard times. Yeah. Is your inability then to work full time over over the next couple of years. The other career ending, but then a shift and a change and using her other talents and skills for purpose. Yeah, it just ended up being a joy for her life and actually made her much happier and us much happier.

Tom 10:46  

Yeah, and then Candi had another tragedy. Tell us about that, and how you eventually wound up losing her.

Alex  10:54  

So we have actually been working through tests at the end of 2021. You know, MS is a difficult disease condition to deal with. She had relapsing remitting MS, which means essentially, that it just comes on and you don’t know. And the thing about MS is that it could just be a bad day, or it could be a full blown new lesion that’s going to paralyze, ya know, and you don’t know right away even during the event. And so she had had a couple of what they call breakthroughs, where she had bad days that turned into lesions, that caused a little more pressure toward disability, a little more pain, a little more weakness, etc. 

And so we were working on medication changes. And it’s, every medication for these kinds of diseases comes with strings, comes with some sort of side effects, etc. And over the years, the things that we learned was that many of those side effects actually have some mental impacts, depression, or mood or these kinds of things. 

So she was very diligent about one thing that she lived, and that was being able to daily choose joy, no matter what was happening, no matter what she was feeling. She wanted to be able to consciously and be able to express the joy that was really her heart. didn’t want any medications or anything like that, inhibiting that. So we actually changed medications over the years, as any of those things occurred. So just a different sense of not just efficacy, but what are those side effects? And so, in doing so, we were working on changing meds, she was going through a bunch of tests to ensure the meds that she was taking were going to work.

And ultimately, in January of 2022, as part of that testing, we ended up uncovering a very aggressive stage four Metastatic Uterine cancer. There’s no way to understand this other than it was she was relatively asymptomatic. She really didn’t have any pain. She didn’t have any issues, per se, other than she was pre menopausal. So she had typical, those kinds of things, but nothing. And so getting that diagnosis and finding out that she had three very large tumors in her pelvic region, the largest of which was 11 by eight inches. 

She also had two others that were smaller, but still a significant sort of baseball size. And this was the metastatic part of it. And we’ve gone outside of her uterus into her cavity, her pelvic cavity. And so chemo right away, blasted immediately with another big change in life. And forget the MS medication. Now. It’s all about the cancer, the more imminent urgent risks. 

The amazing thing, though, is while going through that difficult journey, she did extremely well. And by May, we had a great oncology team. We had really strong counsel and I had been fortunate to have been in the medical industry for 30 plus years. So lots of friends and network and every test got double check, triple check, you know, had my biotech friends that are doing the Human Genome Project and are into targeted therapy with, you know, all these different therapies, etc, given all kinds of great insights. So we felt really, really well prepared and the surgery was super successful, everything was removed. 

By the end of July. She was clean, meaning no tumors. There was obviously some remnant from obviously Answer getting outside yours but no metastatic disease beyond the just slight stuff that targeted therapy was expected to take care of. So at the end of July, we were done with chemo and we’re on this targeted therapy that had been recommended by our oncology team, a specialty gynecological oncology team, the best in Southern California. second opinions from Mass General at Harvard, including pathology of exam and Memorial Sloan Kettering. Wow. So we had

And they’re like, You are golden. And by early September, we were talking about the possibility of remission, just scans, you know, and then we could extend it and things look good. And in mid September, we’d traveled because I had done an Ironman race, I’m also an athlete. 

While we were at the race, she was having some GI distress, which was unusual. But you know, post surgery, we’re just kind of wondering what’s happening and so we go back home. And we had a scheduled pet, which had a normal rhythm was going to be early October. And oncology said, well, let’s just do it a little bit early. 

So at the end of September, she went in for a follow up PET scan. And we got the results immediately, the next day, and all of a sudden, she had a new additional four and a half by three inch tumor that had grown back into her pelvis. And this is after removal of all the other stuff, she still had a new brand new growth out of nowhere. And the symptoms of the GI distress was because it was essentially wrapped like tentacles around your intestines. And so while we’re trying to figure out what to do over the next couple of days, other than stop that therapy that obviously was not working. Like I said, all these experts, they’re still practicing medicine. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s something that we don’t think about, but medicine is a science that we practice, and we learn brigades are so much better research so much better understood. But it’s still a practice. 

Tom 17:20  

There’s a lot of widower brothers that are nodding their heads, where they thought their wives are in remission, me included.  My wife’s breast cancer came back as a separate glioblastoma brain tumor. Relentless is the only word that I like to use.

Alex 17:43  

The thing that I was looking at was thinking, as long as it’s not metastatic, going outside of the uterine and pelvis area, we’re which hadn’t happened. But man, this tumor was there. Three days later, after learning, severe GI distress we brought  her down to the emergency room and we wanted to get imaging. To see exactly what’s going on. 

And four days later, she was gone from an infection. And I would tell you the most telling point here, and it leads into my passion. Now, the most telling point was that she was so strong and so so determined that we went in for emergency surgery to clear the infection. And that was successful, so successful that over the next couple of days to actually clear the infection. Wow. But the left side of her body began to die. Her MS affected that side. So her autoimmune went bananas. In disorder, overdrive, and just began to eat the left side of her body in order to save her life. 

It’s important for me to share this because while it was sudden, and it was so fast, when this was happening, and she was going into that surgery, you know, we were, we were talking and we were, she had the option. Do you want to do this? Do you want to not go further because, you know, there wasn’t much more they were going to do other than try and clear the infection that the cancer was there. 

And she asked her doctor, she said, Do you think this can work? And he said, I’d love to try. And the only response my wife gave was, okay. And she just told her and doc that she loved her and she trusted her. 

And our conversation was very simple. It was all right. Either you’re gonna wake up and see me or you’re gonna wake up and see the Lord… either way it’s going to be okay. 

She’s like, I know, I want to wake up and see you. She went out to surgery and fought through and beat the infection. But with her body was  withering, and she wanted me, if she couldn’t live with that full joy, and if she was done here, that she wanted to be able to peacefully pass. And so she gave me that choice, meaning I didn’t have to watch her suffer, I didn’t have to have them wrap her up in pain meds, none of it. 

She was able to clear the infection, therefore, her body was beginning to be at peace. And so as we pulled off additional meds and pulled off additional things, she was very peaceful. And in the end, we pulled everything away so that she could just be naturally at peace and pass quietly 

And for the next several hours, she was with us, with me and my sister was there. My sister is also a critical care nurse. And she was just very peaceful. And she got calmer and calmer and till she breathed her last breath in my  arms. And there was not no distress, no pain, she actually looked more youthful. Yeah, it was just an amazing thing. So that was such a gift. 

Tom  22:17  

And Alex, there are so many widower brothers, particularly through COVID and COVID loss that have not had that gift. I did have that experience too. And it’s traumatic, but there is a comfort that comes from knowing that your last breaths were spent together. Definitely. So tell us a little bit about the foundation because it relates to autoimmunity and cancer, for sure.

Alex 22:41  

So over the next two weeks following her passing, I spent time actually with her oncology team. Also with her neurologist, just just trying to understand, not would we have done anything different, but what do we really know about? 

What I’ve learned is a few things. One is at the end, first of all, every cancer patient is on an individual journey. Regardless of how much we know, regardless of all these things, like I said, they’re still practicing. In the case of Candi, this underlying autoimmune disorders, what made the difference, and that targeted therapy was never tested on anything but clean, if you will, patients with endometrial cancer that wasn’t tested against somebody with an underlying condition. So it didn’t work, it may have actually exacerbated the progression of disease. 

So you would never know that but more importantly, she’s not the only one with this circumstance. From her oncology team, that it’s something like 10% between 5% of those patients newly diagnosed with gynecological cancers, which I specifically say gynecological cancers, because those tend to be, for lack of a better way to say the killer cancers, with higher mortality rates than breast cancer and others. And now we’re reaching to a point where more than 50% of the female population as they go postmenopausal have an underlying autoimmune disorder of some type, maybe minor, but something and we just don’t know enough about that. 

So the foundation is designed to help women specifically, who’ve been diagnosed with a gynecological cancer or a female cancer, who also have an underlying condition. There’s no way today for them to simply navigate the system to connect the specialty pharmacists and specialty clinicians in a natural way. These are always specialty groups. They’re not necessarily in a connected health system. Difficult to find your way, it’s very technical, right? 

And so there’s lots of resources but nobody connects the dots for him. So the foundation is, first project is long to actually connect those dots, I have women who were friends and also clinicians on the board of the foundation really driving the need. And that for me, it’s a passion to shepherd it with my healthcare network. But in the end, it’s very human. And it’s not about trying to change pharma or the clinicians. It’s really about serving the people and trying to help them find joy in the journey, and love through that. And that’s what Kenny would want. And that’s what I’m doing.

Tom  25:34  

Yeah. And being that Sherpa, that guy to connect these dots and give them the resources they need all in one spot. I love that. What struck me Alex, from the first time that we talked, is it hasn’t been that long since Candi’s passing at all. And you seem so at peace. Talk about that.

Alex 25:56  

Yeah. Well, you said it a bit earlier, I was very blessed and fortunate to have those peaceful moments at the end. And that, that is absolutely part of it. But going back with our journey together, it really is and was my relationship with God, the faith that both she and I shared. And in the absolute assurance, that this isn’t the end, there’s, there’s, there’s an eternity beyond this world, be together. And her purpose was served here. 

And, as I mentioned earlier, going back to now more than a dozen years of living in the present with her. And in that purpose of purely finding the best of every day, the best we could, all circumstances allowed us to make choices. So we didn’t have any regrets. We didn’t have, oh, I didn’t have at the end any of those sorts of I wish I would have I would have you etcetera, what it could have shut. It didn’t have any of them. 

And the other thing that she did, and those last days is, as we were going through this news, it was extremely painful. But there was also this, her intentional giving of her heart to me in a way that I can’t really describe, like, it almost makes me feel like I’m sounding like some sort of guru or whatever. But the reality is, I really felt a transference of the lightness of her heart, that she absolutely wanted me no matter what. It’s not to be upset, not to be angry, not to be melancholy about it, she really reminded me of how amazing the journey we had was, and she was okay. 

And then the other thing was, if she had an absolute clear desire, even about her services, they would be a party, it would be, it wouldn’t be a memorial, sort of sad remembrance that she wanted to have Candi’s party. And so with our faith and with our deep reverence for respect, and the Lord and all those things, we still wanted it to be a mimosa brunch. Celebration of her life path. So we did it respectfully and the contents in the context of a faithful service. But at the same time, we also had a champagne brunch, for those who weren’t Yeah. And it was part of that initial healing, of knowing that that was okay. 

And then the clear purpose of the foundation is to be able to step forward in that very quickly. And, and I will tell you, the Lord cleared that path. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. But at every moment, I needed to figure something out. It came to me or I got an advisory or a friend, or I just found the right thing and it made it simple and easy to do. So I was able to get it started and cleared. 501C3, all of that within just a couple of weeks. And frankly, all those little things and being able to serve immediately a real purpose.

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About The Host

Grow Through Grief Founder

Thomas Pisello

Growth Evangelist / Growth through Grief Founder

Tom Pisello is a widower and the father of two daughters. Tom lost his wife Judy in 2017 after her ten year battle with cancer.

Tom founded the Growth through Grief site, resources and ministry to help share his personal experiences to grow through the grieving process, and to share with others to help in his own and other’s healing process. Through this process, Tom gained his sobriety, lost 60 pounds, gained a growth mindset and rekindled lost faith, now sharing these hard-earned lessons and the lessons of other widowers and experts with you.

Prior to creating Growth through Grief, Tom was a successful serial-entrepreneur, analyst, speaker, and author of the business books Evolved Selling and The Frugalnomics Survival Guide. He was well known as “The ROI Guy”, founder of Alinean and Interpose, a Managing VP of analyst firm Gartner, Chief Evangelist for Mediafly and founder of the Evolved Selling Institute and host to the popular sales and marketing podcast – Evolved Selling