I remember a conversation I had with my mother 25 years ago when she was going through treatments for ovarian cancer. She wanted to talk about planning her funeral. Although this is a topic anyone can discuss at any time, I brushed it off saying something like, ‘Oh mom, you’re going to be OK. We don’t have to talk about that now.’
Several years later, I read an article about how having this conversation empowers the patient. There are enough things a cancer patient can’t control. Planning anything – including a funeral – is something they can control, so let them do it.
Ever since then, I’ve wondered how family and friends can best support their loved ones living with cancer. So today, I had a conversation with someone who knows this subject well – Jaynette Brown. Since being diagnosed with stage III breast cancer 14 months ago, she has undergone 52 cancer treatments of radiation and chemo and is now being treated with therapies to treat a host of side effects.
What do we need to know? Here’s what she shared:
Instead of asking the patient to call if they need anything, just do it. I was unable to drive back and forth to Pittsburgh for treatments. The best thing to do is to call the patient, ask about their treatment schedule, and offer to drive when you can. Even make a schedule with family and friends so the patient doesn’t have to worry about how they will get to the hospital for treatments.
Don’t be afraid to have a conversation. When I was growing up, nobody talked about cancer. Instead, it was referred to as the “C” word. Even today, it seems as if people don’t want to talk about cancer after the surgery. But it’s not good for the patient to keep it bottled up inside. Have a conversation, including the one about a funeral. My husband Randy and I had that conversation today. It’s a healthy thing to do.
Calls and visits matter. It’s good to call to and check up on a cancer patient. It might be that people don’t know what to say, but don’t be afraid. A 10 minute phone call or visit makes the patient feel important and that they matter.
Stop by with ice cream or dinner. It’s easy to take for granted things like ice cream, but for a cancer patient who has lost their income and has bills to pay, bringing a treat like a milkshake can make their day. The effects of chemo make it difficult to cook, so stopping by with dinner makes a difference too.
Don’t compare cancer to other diseases. Sometimes people want to compare cancer to other diseases to make me feel better. If I complain about leg pain, they’ll say, ‘at least you can walk.’ After surgery, chemo and radiation there are so many side effects. The battle is just beginning. The treatment has caused “chemo brain” where I can’t concentrate as well as painful neuropathy. Medication makes my bones hurt. Every day a cancer patient worries if they’ll make it to the next day. Cancer is cancer.
Keep the peace. Cancer patients have enough to cope with without having the added stress of an argument.
It’s OK to approach me. I’ve had so much support from people who come up to me at Walmart or Rite Aid to talk and to say a prayer with me. Sometimes they’ll get out a piece of paper and add me to a prayer list. When I was experiencing a low white blood count and had to wear a mask, little children would look right up at me and ask why I had it on. It made my day. Parents, don’t stop them from asking questions. It’s the best medicine. That’s what I need.
Humor is good. Sure, I cry a lot. But I laugh a lot too. My husband and I joke all the time because I was the one who always ate super healthy and didn’t even drink alcohol. He’s the one who eats fast food and yet I’m the one who ends up with cancer. I still eat healthy.
Jaynette is finished with her cancer treatments and is undergoing physical therapy, acupuncture and other palliative care. Next week she may be having a biopsy for a lump that she discovered on her chest wall. “I’m not worried. Cancer has made me a stronger person. No matter what happens, God is with me,” she said.
She added, “I want to be the person who volunteers to sit with other cancer patients when they are going through something like a biopsy. I have to be 100% better before I can do that.”
For now, she hopes her candid insight will make a difference to those living with cancer and those whose lives they touch.