Supporting someone with cancer
Cancer is peculiar. It has powers far beyond the tumor. The power to make people swerve their car when they see their friend in traffic, the power to make small children stop and stare at a grown up with no hair, and the power to bring the most unbelievable kindness out in the most unlikely people.
I have only had cancer in my life for a few months, but I now know less about what is the right thing to say or do around a cancer patient, than what I knew a year ago. I think guiding someone on how to support someone going through cancer, is like trying to guide someone on choosing a great holiday. There are so many variables, it is such a personal preference, and everyone’s perspective is so different, that the “right thing to do” can vary from day to day and even from hour to hour.
I have read so much about the dos and don’ts, and they all seem, to me, to be born from the personal experience of the author, and are probably not a reliable source of information. In my experience, if someone comes in with the best of intentions, what comes out of their mouths cannot cause any harm. I have had lots of advice and helpful tips, offers of people I can talk to who have been through the same treatment as me, and more prayers than I could say in 24 hours. But everyone who has brought these to me, has done it with the very best of intentions and a sincere hope and belief in me doing my best on this journey. I have found it overwhelming at times, but always hugely positive and reassuring that so many people want the very best for me.
These days I spend most of my time trying to manage my fatigue to allow me to do normal domestic things. I take naps regularly so my communication has taken a nosedive. I find it amazing that people continue to check in and message me, even though it could be weeks before they get a reply, and even at that, it may be a group message. There are some who don’t message as often, but they have made their support just as clear, as well as their willingness and availability to help out. The support is not measured in characters of messages, but in the sentiment of words and gestures.
What I know for certain is that the cancer journey is completely different for everyone, as different as a 5 day ski holiday is from a 2 week Caribbean cruise. For me, my support network is huge and that support continues to come in so many shapes and forms. All of my support feels like it comes from the most heartfelt and loving part of peoples intentions. I could never even manage to take up all the offers of help, but I feel like I have an army ready to help if I need anything, and that is an enormous worry lifted, especially with 3 kids in the house and a husband who is carrying more than his fair share of the load at the moment.
So thank you to all the kind souls who have been patient when I take forever to reply to a message, yet are there in a heartbeat if I need anything. I cannot advise directly on specifics of how to support someone with cancer, but maybe my perspective on this will give clarity to anybody overthinking this dilemma. One of cancers superpowers is terror. It can make everyone act out of character.
Cancer. It is a word that carries a lot of different associations, emotions and assumptions for everyone. It covers a broad range of scenarios and outcomes, and can have far reaching knock on effects on lives. But there is one certainty when it comes to cancer. It does not discriminate against age, gender, creed or status.
On July 27th 2018, I thought I wouldn’t be able to go to my friends wedding reception because I would be on holidays with my family. As it turned out, I was neither on holiday, nor at my friends wedding reception. That was the day that I found out that I had breast cancer.
I turned 37 a week before my first chemo session in August. I am very lucky to have 3 happy and healthy kids, the youngest had just turned 1 over the summer. I had set up my own business working from home as a reflexologist, allowing me to be a stay at home mother. Everything was shaping up to be an even better life than I could have imagined. I couldn’t understand how this had arrived at my door. But as I began to choose a perspective on the situation, I quickly breathed a sigh of relief for a lot of things:
- This cancer is very treatable; my oncologist used the word “curable”.
- Cancer has come to me, and not my kids or husband.
- The main earner is still able to work; we can still pay bills and pay the mortgage.
- We have a HUGE and very solid support network, the community we rocked up to only 6 years ago treat us like family, the community I came from treat me like I never left. Friends in different countries and friends I might only see occasionally, have all found a way to make that distance not matter.
I have been drawn to cancer, and its profound effects, for a while. A lot of my reflexology work centres around cancer patients and their family. Before my diagnosis, I had been volunteering at The Cuisle Cancer Support Centre in Portlaoise. The Centre has been the main reason that I have been able to roll with the punches since my diagnosis. The language of cancer was familiar enough to me that, as I listened to the details of my diagnosis, I could follow what the consultant was telling me, and was well placed to ask relevant questions. This meant I left the hospital in a daze, but with a good grasp of the situation and what lay ahead.
I had no alarming symptoms prior to my diagnosis. Working at the Cuisle Centre has made me acutely aware of signs and symptoms. This is probably what has me almost halfway through my chemotherapy today, rather than carrying on with my life, oblivious to what would be happening inside me.
Over January and February 2018, I lost about 10kg. Everyone was commenting that I looked great, and I was applauding myself for getting back to pre baby weight with little (or no) effort. I know full well that a symptom of cancer is sudden and unexplained weight loss of up to 10% of your body weight. But I felt grand. My weight loss was my only clear symptom that I might have cancer, but I also had other vague symptoms which crossover with being tired and run down. I’ve probably had about a 20 nights of unbroken sleep in almost 5 years, so it was safe to assume that I was tired and run down. Working at the Cuisle Centre had made me into a rigorous checker for lumps and bumps and anything strange. Still, the lumpiness I did find in June, didn’t strike me or my doctor as anything sinister, but thankfully, my GP referred me for a mammogram to get a conclusive result on what was happening.
Documenting the fine details of my cancer journey is not what this blog is about. I feel so lucky that I became such a diligent breast checker just in time. Only 5 years ago I wouldn’t have thought to even check occasionally. I’m also so lucky that the Cuisle Centre has given me the most valuable education of my life, making me an advocate for my own health.
I have a lot of things in my favour that are making this journey less traumatic, and taking away some of the power that cancer has in its knock on effects. A strong support network is half the workload, but I know everyone’s circumstances are different and this may not be readily available to everyone. But what IS available to everyone, and what has helped me to steady myself, and keep my head right, are the following 3 resources:
- The Cuisle Cancer Support Centre. Portlaoise. This is an unbelievable support and resource for cancer patients and their families. The are a well run charity who take walk in clients from all over the country. I sought to volunteer at the centre as a reflexologist, because I admire what they do and the service they provide to the community. You can learn more, or donate through their website http://www.cuislecentre.com
- Regina Roche. Craniosacral Therapist. Regina is a therapist at the Cuisle Centre. So far, she has worked with me from the time of my diagnosis until I started chemotherapy. Her therapy is very unique and difficult to describe, but she did some significant work releasing anxieties and other by-products of my diagnosis, and the fight or flight state that the diagnosis left me paralyzed in. Regina helped me to find a stable footing going into Chemotherapy, helping me to get my head in the game and find a strong and positive frame of mind. Reginas therapy will be an important tool in successfully navigating this journey.
- Calm App. This is an app I downloaded on my phone with loads of guided meditations. There are 7 day programs to help calm anxiety, manage stress, achieve a deep sleep etc. I find it excellent when the day is quiet and I have a chance to think about everything and a sense of fear and becoming overwhelmed starts to build. There is a free version and a premium version. I accidentally purchased the premium version but chose not to cancel it because it has such a huge range of meditation and guidance episodes.
This October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The media campaign is unavoidable, there are posters everywhere with information on how to check yourself and what symptoms may indicate cancer. Please do yourself and your family the favour of checking yourself, and following up on any symptoms or changes.