It is surely one of the most frightening words in any language, a word that sends your mind leaping to the worst possible conclusions. When cancer is diagnosed in someone you love, it not only turns the patient’s world upside down but yours as well.
Depending on how close you are to the patient, both geographically and emotionally, you may find your life dominated by the diagnosis for an indefinite period of time. Even if you’re not the primary caregiver, you may find yourself affected in ways that would never have occurred to you B.C. (Before Cancer).
I found this out the hard way. From 2006 through 2009, from the cancer journeys of my aunt, mother, brother, sister and best friend, I learned far more about coping with a loved one’s cancer than I ever wanted to know. And the older you get, the more likely it is you will have to accompany someone you love on the scary, exhausting, tear-soaked, hopeful, life-altering roller-coaster ride that is cancer.
According to the American Society for Clinical Oncology “the greatest single risk factor for developing cancer is aging,” which is why as seniors we’re increasingly likely to encounter it.
On the other hand, optimism is an essential tool for survival, so here’s some good news: The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health reports that death rates from cancer for all ages are decreasing. Since cancer is still unknown territory for most people, let me share some ways of coping.
• Stay positive. I meant it about optimism; a positive attitude can be one of the strongest medicines. This holds true for family and friends as well as the patient. Early detection and medical advances have made many cancers curable, or at least manageable. Cancer patients can go on to lead long and full lives. Though panic and fear are understandable first reactions, cancer does not automatically mean death. Keep telling yourself that — even if you have to put a sign on your teapot to remind you first thing every morning the way I did: “Cancer Is Survivable!”
• Be informed. One of the things I found most surprising was how confusing cancer could be. There are so many kinds, and so many variables affecting its outcome. When my friend Sarah’s son was diagnosed with a brain tumor called glioblastoma, Sarah combed the Internet late into the night.
“I wanted to know all about this cancer that I had never even heard of. I stayed up late many nights, researching. I wanted to be prepared for everything and anything, to know what was possible in terms of treatment. I wanted Andy to have every possible support.”
Staying well-informed will make you feel less helpless. Obviously your oncologist and treatment center will be your first source of information, but the Internet can also be valuable. One caveat: Stick with reputable websites, whether searching traditional or nontraditional approaches.
• Find a support group. Talking to someone who knows first-hand what you’re going through can be incredibly comforting and strengthening.
One excellent resource in the Greater Portland area is the Cancer Community Center in South Portland. Their free classes, activities and support groups are not just for cancer patients and survivors, but for anyone impacted by the disease.
“The center provides resources specifically for caregivers,” Jani Darak-Druck, manager of volunteer services, said. “Our Caregivers Support Group is for anyone affected by someone else’s cancer, whether by supporting a friend or family member or providing direct care. It meets every other week at the Cancer Community Center on Thursdays from 4:30 to 5:45 p.m.”
The next session is Oct. 20.
“Our weekly Cancer Support Group welcomes friends and family members as well as those with cancer, and our Maine Buddy Program has trained caregiver buddies as well as bereavement and cancer buddies,” Darak-Druck coninued.
• Take care of yourself. I don’t just mean eating healthfully and getting exercise, which are even harder to do in times of stress. Your emotional and spiritual well-being is equally important. If you’re religious I don’t have to recommend you start praying; you already will be. If you’re not traditionally religious you may find a spiritual practice such as meditation to be helpful.
Try to have emotional support close to home. Outside support groups are wonderful and I strongly recommend them, but a network of family and friends, classmates and co-workers — basically anyone who will lend a willing ear or a shoulder to cry on — can be invaluable.
“When someone you care about is diagnosed with cancer,” Darak-Druck said, “one of your first thoughts may be, ‘What do I say?’ The most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not about having the perfect thing to say, but about being a person who is able to listen.”
• Give yourself time to grieve. We all know cancer doesn’t always have a happy ending. Sarah’s son died last year. And of my five beloved family members and friends mentioned at the beginning of this article, only my sister is still with me.
Grief, of course, is another roller-coaster ride altogether, and one there isn’t room to explore here. But it too is survivable. (Ignore the fact that I am crying as I write this.) I promise you that the skills you learned and the support systems you utilized in your loved one’s journey through cancer will also help you afterwards.
I think the most important thing I can tell you is that you’re not alone. There are so many sources of support available in the Greater Portland area; this article has barely scratched the surface. Seek them out — they really help. And listen to this advice from my friend Sarah to anyone embarking on this journey: “I wish them well, and advise them to be clear in their needs, to accept all the help they can stand, and to make the best of every hour with their dear one.”
Kathleen Connelly is a recent seminary graduate and freelance writer who lives in Yarmouth. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org