With the upcoming spring and summer months, throughout the country, you can find all night affairs, paying tribute to cancer survivors. The Relay For Life events are a very intense spiritual experience. People sharing their hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow. It took a tragic event, like cancer, that brought people together in the fight to eliminate it. The Relay usually starts on a Friday evening and runs straight through till Saturday morning. A track, or a course, is made as people walk through the whole night, symbolizing, the many sleepless nights the survivors and their caretakers have experienced.
But, for this caretaker, the most powerful part of the night is that first lap. A lap taken by the survivors. I watch as my wife, introduces herself, “My name is Betty and I’ve been cancer free for five years.” As she starts her lap, tears form as I say a pray of thanks, that God gave her the strength to fight, and the courage to survive. As she walks by, my attention goes back to the microphone and I listen to other survivors. Young and old, one year, one day, I pray for them all. I watch as nervous spouses stand along side, hoping that God will give them both the strength they will need in the upcoming months. The surgeries, the chemo, the radiation, at times, you wonder will it ever stop. And at times, you wonder, how much fight the both of you have. But, somehow, by the Grace of God, you work your way through it all, and as a couple, you become stronger. Along the way, you learn some valuable lessons. There are some “do’s” and “don’ts” which should be practiced, as a family with cancer, or as friends of a family with cancer.
Though, I talk as a caregiver and my survivor is my wife. What I say holds true, for wife’s who are caretakers and their husbands are the survivors. The most obvious of all things to realize is that things will change. First, the surgeries, will “steal” parts of your wife’s body, making her feel, unattractive and less feminine. Do say “I love you,” don’t avoid her, or look away. She’s still your wife and your soul-mate. No matter how silly, her fears may sound – listen, and don’t say “you shouldn’t feel that way.” They’re her feelings, she has a right to feel anyway she wants. Sometimes, saying nothing is the best thing to do. When my wife, Betty, started chemo, she was told she would lose her hair in 14 days. On the 13th day, her hair fell out. Not a little at a time, but all at once. I was standing next to her as she pulled out clump after clump. It was a shock and a fear which can only be described as unknown. As she started to cry, I just hugged her. We stood motionless, until she was done crying, we cleaned up the hair, and found her a hat. Betty didn’t wear wigs or scarfs, just baseball caps.
Don’t expect your wife, to be loving or even caring. And please, don’t take it personal. She doesn’t feel well. The sad part is, what will make her better (chemo), will also make her sicker. She’ll have no appetite, so don’t expect her to fix your meals, but do fix her something. Whether she eats it or not, isn’t important. The message she will receive is, your thinking of her. Along with cooking, you better learn how to do the laundry. I don’t think anyone, including myself, can honestly say how sick your love one is. I just remember the moans, the crying, and the endless trips throughout the night, into the bathroom to vomit. If there was ever a time in your life, where you absolutely, must not think of yourself, it’s now. Your wife needs you. While at times, you’ll feel neglected or rejected, years later, you’ll be happy you did what you did.
Whatever you can do, to take away all fears and stresses, from your loved one – do it. Don’t let her see any bills. Pay them on time, if you can’t, call the people, before they call you. Your wife needs to concentrate on her health. But, as hard as it is, don’t take control of their medical program. Go with her to doctor’s appointments, ask questions, you want answered, but let your wife run the show. Let her set up the appointments, let her manage her health. Yes, you’ll be there when she can’t do it and help her when she asks for it. But again, this is part of her battle, part of her recovery, she needs to fight, with your support, not your control.
If you have high school age or younger children, don’t “dump” all your fears on them. They probably have a lot more then you ever thought of. And don’t shield them from the reality of cancer. They want to help, but most of the time, they don’t know what to do. Ask them, to spend time with Mom, just sit and talk. If she feels well enough, she might even enjoy trying to help with their homework. Let the kids and Mom, set their own boundaries. Don’t interfere, thinking, Mom’s to sick to do that. The kids are smarter then we may think, they’ll know when Mom, isn’t up to it. Have faith in your wife, have faith in your kids, and have faith in yourself.
What was truly amazing, throughout our war, was how intelligent our pets were. I do believe the strongest part of Betty’s early days, was our cat and dog. They were so peaceful, they laid with her, let her cuddle them, and were just always there for her. My belief now, is that people who have pets, get a good “jump start” on recovery, due to their companionship and gentle concern.
By far, the best thing, we as a couple did, was get informed. After we found out, Betty had cancer. We read everything and anything we could find out about breast cancer. By the time, we went for our first doctor’s appointment, we knew the questions we needed to ask. We knew what would be a good answer, as well as answers where we needed to be concerned. We knew what to expect from chemo, as well as radiation. Anything we didn’t understand, we’d ask the doctors to please help us understand. When something did happen, we’d know it was “normal” because we read about it. Being informed, kept us in control, and helped us manage cancer, the best we could.
OK, there are some “do’s” and “don’ts” as a family, but what about our friends and neighbors. If you ask a survivor or a caretaker “How are you doing,” be prepared for an answer. If you really don’t want to know, please don’t ask. So many times, people would ask and I’d start telling them about my fears, then they’d cut me off, and say something like, “you got broad shoulders, you can handle it,” or “God wouldn’t give you more then you could handle.” I really didn’t want, nor did I need a pep talk. I just wanted you to listen.
Please realize everybody who does chemo, reacts differently. We don’t want to hear about a sister or a brother who had a cancer and went through chemo just fine. Just as there are different cancers, there are also different chemo drugs. I know you’re trying to offer words of encouragement, but again, sometimes the best thing to do, is say nothing and just listen. By listening, you’ll understand and you’ll learn what we truly need. We know you want to help, so please listen.
You won’t catch cancer from someone who has it, so you don’t need to avoid us. We realize, you may be uncomfortable with everything and have no idea of what to say or do, but you don’t need to run and hide either. Believe me, we understand. We had no idea either.
Don’t take “no” for an answer. Stupid human pride, at times, tells us, we can handle this and we don’t need any help. Don’t ask, just do it. So many times, I’d come home from work, just wore out from my job and the stress of seeing my wife so sick and feeling so helpless, I didn’t know what to do. It was at these times, God would send us an angel. A neighbor, who’d bring a meal over. We didn’t ask for it, they just did it. Don’t get me wrong, my wife is a great cook, but those meals, were the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
At work, my co-workers had “food drives.” On three straight Friday’s, I went home with a car full of groceries. These people, like so many others, wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do. So they came up with different ideas, which always seem to happen, when we truly needed them to do so. They felt wanted and needed, we felt relieved, without being beggars.
There is no correct way of dealing with cancer. Its like parenthood, you do the best you can at the time. I’m thankful that God gave both, Betty and I, the strength to fight it – together. I’m thankful for our community for all their help, and friends and co-workers, who always seemed to understand what we needed and when we needed it. Please, don’t live in fear of cancer. People who have it, will answer your questions and will talk openly about it. They don’t want your pity or your sorrow, just a shoulder to lean on and someone who will listen. Eventually, God willing, cancer will be wiped off the face of the earth, due to the advances in medical science. But no one should forget the support system for survivors and their families and the power it gives to all of us.
by Dave Harm