On February 20, 2016 hundreds of cyclists, including many of my friends, took the Miami roads on the Dolphin Cycling Challenge to benefit the University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Center. I didn’t. My thought process was that cancer wasn’t “my issue” and as worthy as it was, I opted to fundraise for the Pan Florida Cycling Challenge for Hungry Kids instead; a cause I had much more personal experience with.
On April 6, 2016 cancer struck and has been a daily part of my vocabulary since then. That Wednesday in April, the Doctor who performed surgery on my mother a few hours before told me she had Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer.
You are never quite prepared to hear that, and I wasn’t.
For months, my mom was not feeling well but no one could tell her why. She passed through several specialists until her gynecologist finally detected abnormal results and sent us to the Sylvester Cancer Center. By the time we got there I was obsessed and worried Google would block my endless “ovarian cancer” searches.
For a myriad of reasons, it was my mom and I at the hospital for her surgery. She was anxious and I rubbed her feet when the anesthesia kicked in and she was out like a light bulb. Her final worries were that IF she had cancer, she didn’t want to be a burden on her family, especially me … the local daughter. The second big worry was if she needed chemotherapy she didn’t want to lose her hair.
When she woke up, the Doctor had long moved on to another deserving patient, yet as soon as she opened her eyes her first words were: “Do I have cancer?”
I was the unlucky person who had to tell her:
yes, you have cancer; yes, you will need chemotherapy, and yes you will lose your hair.
The particulars of her cancer and her journey through it are not mine to share. Mine is the role of supporter, daughter, and encourager. I can talk to that. We are in the beginning of what will be a long process so here are a few things I have learned.
- I don’t have cancer. Duh. Of course I don’t, I know that. So I cannot pretend to understand what my mother is going through. I cannot say “I understand” when we talk about difficult and uncomfortable subjects. That is one place I cannot go with her. I must remember at all times to validate what she says because I have no clue of what it is like to be in her shoes. This is her process, not mine.
- Others have cancer. Another obvious one. Nothing has helped more than having my mother speak to other survivors. They can say “I understand” and give guidance in a way it is impossible for me to do so. Even if reluctant, get your loved one in touch with someone who has been where they are now.
- Respect decisions. I’ve had some tough conversations recently. From living wills to life insurance policies I would much rather stick my head in the sand than deal with any of it. But my mother insisted on my understanding EVERYTHING and the best I could do for her was to listen, take notes, and act accordingly. These are her decisions of how to tackle serious matters, my job is not to question but to acknowledge.
- Find gratitude. The one thing a bad attitude cannot beat is gratitude. So find it. There are many rays of sunshine out there and here is a strange one. My mother is extraordinarily organized. Every one of her decisions I spoke of above, has a document to back it up. Every document has a file, and every file has a label. All her papers are in order and if she were to pass away, even the burial instructions and payments are in place. I’m not saying this to be depressing or sinister. I am saying this because I am grateful that my mother had the foresight to plan all of this so that when the time comes, tomorrow or in twenty years, that is one less thing I will have to worry about.
- Be ready for the roller coaster. One day I’m on top of my game and okay with the diagnosis and what has to be done. The next I’m pissed because all of a sudden I cannot count on my mom for things I used to be able to. Until you get to accepting this is a card that life dealt you, it is a bumpy path. The sooner you understand and move past wishing it away, the sooner you will get to a more comfortable place.
- Caretakers need caretaking too. My mother is my father’s caretaker. And though I am not their primary caretaker this process has been emotionally draining. I love my parents to pieces, but I have my own family to look after and need to learn to delegate. I am a control freak and prefer to be involved than on the sidelines. However, I need to do a better job of taking care of myself too; I don’t have to go at it alone. My mother has been showered with support from her friends, and I do have two sisters with whom to share this load. Though living out of town, they will come home and pitch in. And lastly, I have an incredibly supportive husband. As soon as I can, I’ll write a post on the immense outpour of support we all received as that deserves it’s own conversation.
This is the start of a story that will take us through the rest of 2016. She just went to her first chemotherapy appointment and I’ll share my point of view along the way because for better or for worst cancer is now “my issue” too.
How about you? Has cancer struck your life? Any tips on how to best be a support for the patient in your life?