Being a Life Line to a Cancer Patient

It is very humbling when others dealing with their own cancer struggles reach out to me. Being allowed into an individual’s personal space when I have never met them before is an honor and also is daunting. I don’t have answers for everything, not even close. I can only do my best to listen, empathize, do some research via Google or tell them what worked for me and hope for the best. There is no “one size fits all” answer. I do get personally invested to an extent, because I care. I hate to see people suffer and I hate to see those who love the person with cancer have to sit by the sidelines and hope they will beat it. It’s brutal for all involved. This is why I’ve tried to deal with my cancer by keeping my sense of humor and by being very open about it with those around me. That is what has worked for me, but I definitely am not the average patient, just ask my doctor. Thank goodness he “got” me and the way I, my friends, and my wife handled my time in treatment.

For someone who has never had any experience with cancer, it can be really rough when someone close to them says, “I have cancer” or “my cancer has come back”. We panic, say how unfair it is, cry, get angry, and then once it all has sunk in, wonder what can be done to help that person. I will tell you, having been the person on the receiving end of that news by the doctor, we experience the same emotions magnified by 100. I found myself wondering how it really could be as bad as they were saying it was. Surely I would have had more symptoms? Perhaps it isn’t as serious as they’re saying it is? And then I went through so many scenarios in my brain about what was about to happen to try to save my life, it was nerve wracking. Major surgery? Menopause? Five months of chemo and then radiation? What is going to happen to me? What if I don’t survive surgery? Believe me, the newly diagnosed cancer patient is thinking about everything and wanting to be thinking about nothing all at the same time.

They are facing a daunting task and something they will have to endure alone, even with the best support system possible around them. Physically, you can’t take away the side-effects and trauma the patient is going through, but you can do everything possible to make sure they have no other worries on their plate. Make sure they know you are a phone call or text away and will drive them to treatment, hold their hand, talk with their doctor, and so on, if that is what you both want. Don’t ever force anything, but listen to them. If they say they don’t want you to bother, that isn’t necessarily a no. Don’t push your way in, but don’t give up on them either.

Help set up a meals schedule for their family, if and only if they want you to. Please don’t take it personally if they cannot and will not eat food you make for them. Listen to them. I went through a time when all I wanted was pretzel sticks, fresh fruit, or a smoothie (my wife made one for me every day). I could not eat the beautiful meals she would prepare and I know it hurt her feelings in the beginning, but we then worked out a system where she would ask me before preparing anything. She would give me options and ask what I thought I could eat. We had a time towards the end of treatment when she knew I could eat, but only if I had a few bites from a marijuana cookie. That would stimulate my appetite enough for me to want to eat a small serving. Once we were on the same page, neither of us got frustrated with each other over food again. You also need to keep in mind that something that sounds good one day may seem unappetizing the next. There may be a metallic taste in their mouth that makes consuming most anything difficult. The drugs received in chemo can vary from patient to patient, depending on their cancer, so don’t expect text book side effects or results from treatment.

Sometimes people ask me what to say to people with cancer. I struggle with it because everyone handles it differently. Just make it clear that you are there for them, in whatever form they need you to take. I think the most important thing you can do is learn what NOT to say. Don’t tell them stories about people you know who had cancer unless they beat it and are doing well. Don’t minimize their experience, but don’t act like they’re dying, unless they really are. Try really hard to not make the “aw, you’re a sick person and I feel sorry for you” face at them (that was the worst for me). Don’t tell them you know how they feel, because you don’t. Don’t make grand gestures and then get upset if they don’t fall over themselves to thank you endlessly or aren’t happy about it. Sometimes people don’t know how they will feel in the day to day and showing up at their doorstep with a gift basket might be welcome one day and annoy them the next. If they say they want to be left alone, respect that. It’s okay to send a text or email if you haven’t heard from them to let them know you are thinking about them, or perhaps a quote or meme or cute puppy video you saw on Facebook.

Don’t suffocate them, just perform a gentle acts of kindness and then back away. If they want to talk or see you, they will let you know. Some people cannot ask for help or don’t want to be a bother. I was the later, but also was very happy to let those who wanted to participate in the process into my inner circle, so to speak. It’s my experience that most cancer patients don’t want chemo buddies each week or only want one or two people to experience that with them. Some don’t at all – they want to be alone during that process. Just respect their boundaries. It isn’t easy, especially if the patient doesn’t have a good prognosis. There can be panic and the possibility of regrets. We are all human.

Cancer made me more bold and I see that in others who are currently in treatment. I met others like that when I was still having chemo. For some of us, we want to communicate, let the world in and use that for strength. It was energizing for me to have social media to feel like I wasn’t alone, even when I was flat on the sofa feeling nauseous or waiting to talk with my doctor. I also saw the same people every week come in to get chemo alone with a book and a blanket, or with their spouse by their side. They did not dress up in costumes or make bucket lists or want attention of any kind. We all handle facing our mortality differently. The most important thing I can say I’ve learned is to listen to others. Through their words and their actions, they will tell you what they need or want from you.

Lastly, be sure to ask the loved ones of the patient how they are doing and make sure they have support. I actually wasn’t concerned about my well-being, but wanted to make sure my close friends checked in with my wife. I knew she would be tending to my needs constantly and I wanted her to feel supported and to have back up. It was so nice for me to know that she had a support system and it wasn’t just people wanting to know how I was doing. It’s much easier for a patient to focus on recovery if they know those close to them are okay and not stretched too thin. Enough for now. I’m sure I will have feedback about this from others and I will write more about this subject later. ❤

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A big chunk of my support system. This is us after I finished treatment. So much love!

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Yoga and Continued Healing

It took a little while after finishing treatment for me to feel like doing much. Even though I had endured chemo and radiation without too much drama or sickness, my body decided it wanted me to spend some time on my sofa, watching dvds, and not doing anything productive for a while. It felt good and I really enjoyed the quiet time without having to think about nausea patterns or doctor appointments. I don’t really have any obvious residual issues, other than my scar from my port still hurts at times.

Eventually, I knew I needed to do something with myself and decided to try taking some basic yoga classes. I did decently well keeping up, but it became very apparent that I was weak and my muscles would shake during any pose that required balancing or holding myself up on all fours. I took a break during the chaos of holiday sales season with the intention of returning once things calmed down.

During that time I was offered the opportunity to do cleaning at a local yoga studio in exchange for classes. I said yes. When I started looking into which classes I wanted to try I came across a yin restorative class. Reading the description, I knew it was the class I wanted to try first. It is a class that takes place down on the mat and involves holding very doable poses for longer periods of time. Transitions are slower and the emphasis is on deep stretching, or opening, affecting joints and ligaments. It is ideal for someone recovering from an accident or injury, or someone slowly trying to get back their strength and flexibility (or all of the above, like me). By the second class, I was addicted.

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Supported child’s pose, when done by a unicorn. Yes, I drew this. 😉

My instructor closes the blinds, dims the lights, lights candles, and plays music that is a combination of relaxing and gently stimulating. Before class, most students lie on their mats, quietly letting go of their day and the outside world. The mood is set. We use props and slowly move through poses as instructed. After class I usually feel as if I’ve meditated while enjoying a gentle workout, mixed with stretching away my sore muscles and stress. As cheesy as this may sound, I never, ever want to give it up. I kind of want to swear my undying devotion to my instructor as well. Yeah, I’m in love.

One of the things my instructor talks about with new students is the tendency to have emotional experiences during class. The work done can release stress or tension held in various parts of the body. Each person experiences the class differently, but for some it is very cathartic. Personally, there have been two or three classes where I found myself having intense emotions and was slightly tearful at the end. I actually didn’t want to get up off of my mat and just wanted to savor the moment as long as possible. I always am left feeling transformed in a way, but I can only describe the emotions I experience during these classes as a mix of happy, sad, connected, grounded, transported, joyful, and oh so very grateful, for everything in my life.

This is the white board in class, so we know what to put next to our mats before each class. Feeling the love. <3

This is the white board in class that tells us what to put next to our mats before each class. Feeling the love. ❤

We are always in such a hurry – to finish our to do lists, to get to work, to make appointments, to make money, and so on. We rarely slow down during our day to day and most people are never able to get out of their head, even if just for an hour or so. It truly is a gift to be able to attend these classes and to let go of physical, mental, and emotional stress. I feel as if yin restorative yoga was the perfect activity for me and the connection I’ve made with my instructor is priceless. I feel stronger, happier, and more focused and relaxed than I’ve ever been. Yep, it’s a keeper.

Long Time, No Talk

I know I’ve been gone for a while and haven’t posted anything new. I’ve mostly been re-adjusting to life after treatment and was trying to get caught up on creating artwork and pottery for the numerous holiday sales I usually sell at, from November through December. It was a crazy roller coaster of productivity and it felt good. So many new ideas and a new outlook on life pushed me to get back into my creative groove and express myself. By the end of December, I had worn myself out a bit, but it made me feel alive.

I’ve also now had my three month checkup with my oncologist. It was really good to see him and the usual happy people I’d gotten used to visiting with every week, although it did feel odd to return to the clinic. Dr. Rushing greeted us like old friends and he immediately hugged me. We wore tiny rainbow colored hats and matching bow ties. He, of course, posed for a photo with me wearing them. It was great to catch up, even when I had to remind myself I was there as a patient who had finished treatment just 3+ months earlier. When we got around to talking business it was a sobering reminder of how cancer will always be a part of my life and of a dear friend whose cancer had returned and put him back into treatment. Yeah, cancer is an inconsiderate jerk.

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Dr. Rushing and I

Dr. Rushing told us that because I did not have blood markers before my surgery, the higher than normal numbers that indicate that something is wrong, we will just have to keep doing basic exams and I will be the gauge for knowing if something seems abnormal and I need further testing. That’s a lot of pressure, to not have an easily identifiable way of knowing if the cancer has returned or spread. He doesn’t want to put me through a cat scan every 3 months because of the radiation levels, so we will only do them if I feel like anything is off in my body. It’s a scary thing to think about, having to wait until something is clearly wrong before doing in-depth testing, but I trust my doctor with my life and it’s gotten me this far.

I’m facing it as I have everything else that has come my way this past year, with a positive attitude and the determination that I will not let cancer win, especially when it comes to negative thoughts, dread, or fear. That does nothing but hold me back and leave me waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. I have been moving forward, starting to write more about my experiences as prompted by others, and am working towards promoting nutrition and the regime I followed during, and now after, treatment. Speaking with others about an experience like cancer validates the person who is/was going though it and also tends to give that person the feeling that they have some form of control over it. It’s empowering.

I’m doing work with a circle of friends as a Wellness Advocate, promoting the positive benefits I experienced because I started taking doTERRA essential oils after my surgery, around the time I started chemo. A kind friend gifted me my first 3 bottles and it has changed my life. We did a lot to keep me healthy and to keep my body from becoming malnourished. I will write more about that later and will put together exactly what I consumed so I will be able to share it with others.

I’m currently working on that and our pottery business. I told Sam after I finished treatment that I wanted to do things that make me happy versus taking the first retail job I came across to pay the bills. I am fortunate enough to have a wife who has taken 3 part-time teaching jobs in order to pay the bills while I pursue business goals and keep up with my newly invigorated creative drive. She really is the wind beneath my wings.

I’ll be better about writing from now on. The break was good, but it makes my heart happy to be back at it. Life is good.