My brother and I were walking along a path down by the river near where we live. He was trying to get me out and moving during my chemotherapy treatments. We were laughing and joking, just making small talk and enjoying the sound of the rushing river and the chirping birds. I inhaled the fresh air and enjoyed the warm sun beating down on my face. I wasn’t looking for deep conversation at that moment, which is why I was so surprised with what happened next:
One Little Question
My brother got in close and asked me “How are you, really?”
In that instant I burst into tears. I knew he wanted to know how I was handling everything; how I was processing my cancer diagnosis, if I was in pain at all. The truth is, I wasn’t alright. I said I was, and I acted like everything was okay. I put on my best face and smiled and joked and laughed like nothing was wrong. Truth be told – I honestly didn’t know. I didn’t realize how scared I was until he asked me that one simple question.
Opening the Flood Gates
My job in the Navy required a certain amount of operational security, and I completely put that to shame. Suddenly, I had diarrhea of the mouth. I blurted out everything. I spilled my guts. He asked me how I was really doing, and I couldn’t stop myself from telling him all my fears, worries, insecurities, and frustrations.
I told him about my fear of facing a possible cancer re-occurrence in the future. I explained how worried I was about my upcoming double mastectomies and whether or not I’d be fertile enough to have children. Radiation Therapy was right around the corner, and I expressed concern over trying to keep my skin from breaking down during treatment. Frustration, too, had gripped me almost daily. The steroids I had to take with chemo made me gain ten pounds, adding to the ten I already swore I’d lose. Frankly, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired!
A Little Thing Called Acknowledgement
He remained silent during my breakdown. That’s when I realized: my brother was listening. He didn’t judge, or tell me to “keep fighting the good fight”, or that everything happens for a reason. When I had finished, he acknowledged my emotions, my feelings, my fears, and he didn’t try to tell me that it was all in my head or that I had no reason to be scared or worried. My brother admitted to me that he was scared, too. Scared to lose his sister, scared that I might not get through treatment, scared that I would be so radically changed by my experience that I would never be the same happy person.
A Little Thing Called Encouragement
After that, he proceeded to remind me (lovingly) that cancer is just a road bump – something I had to get over so I could move on with my life. He reminded me that it wasn’t the end of my story here on Earth: it was just a temporary circumstance. Cancer treatment wouldn’t be for the rest of my life. Sure, things about my life have and will change because of the cancer diagnosis. That doesn’t mean that I can’t look forward to the future. In fact, he encouraged me to do so – reminding me of the things I love (camping, traveling, etc.) and the goals I have (marriage, kids, living debt free). He reminded me that I needed to get well so I could accomplish those things.
A Little Thing Called Love
My brother proceeded to stop and hug me, right there on the trail. He told me how much he loved me and would do whatever he could to help me through the process. I knew he would. In my family, we’ve always been there for one another. But saying that he would be there for me was what I needed to hear. I needed that hug. I needed to know I wasn’t alone in my fight in that moment, and him expressing that sentiment verbally really helped give me peace of mind.
A Little Thing Called Humanity
How you handle the news that someone you know has cancer will determine what kind of friend you are. I know people who have lost friends because of a cancer diagnosis. People don’t know what to say, how to help, or they think the cancer fighter is going to die anyway so they just write their friend off. It’s horrible and sad, but it happens all the time. You need to remember that the person who has just been diagnosed is scared and needs your support.
That person is still a person – a person who is about to undergo one of the most terrifying fights one can undertake. Their body has literally turned against them. For me, I imagined being eaten alive from the inside out. My body was trying to kill me, and that’s a hard truth to wrap one’s mind around. If you love and value the person who now has no choice but to enter such a battle ground, help them fight! Many cancer support groups allow caregivers. Go to the group and ask questions. Go with the cancer fighter to doctor’s appointments. Doctors throw so much information at a cancer patient for their diagnosis and treatment it’s nearly impossible to remember it all. Be a second set of ears.
Just be compassionate. Don’t talk about stories of other people you knew with cancer, especially if they died. An exception to this would be if the person you knew did something that might help the person you know now. Advice is always welcome. If someone you know is going through chemotherapy, know that Chemo Brain is a very real condition. You may have to repeat things several times because Chemo Brain makes it very hard to retain short-term memories. My family is always reminding me of things I said or did. Sometimes I end up quitting a task half-way through because something else caught my attention, and I’ll totally forget to go back and finish what I started.
Get the cancer patient out of the house, moving around. Blood flow is a good thing. Take them for coffee or offer to go on a short walk outside for some fresh air. Don’t allow the cancer patient to be isolated because Depression is lurking just around the corner. Many cancer patients fight some form of this or another; some patients require medical intervention. Others (like myself) do a fairly decent job of keeping it at bay, but when the fight lasts well over a year, as mine has, it can become harder and harder to stay optimistic. It feels like there’s no end in sight. Remind your loved one that it won’t last forever. Tell them they’re doing great, and that you’re proud of them for fighting. With your help, they will feel loved, encouraged, and strengthened for whatever lies ahead.
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