How to Play When Your Loved One is Dealt the Cancer Card
Life is full of irony. As a writer, you get to live through the experiences of others. I’m the editor of EC Magazine, a sister publication of Tallahassee Magazine. When I met Billie Chapell to share her breast cancer journey in my magazine, I couldn’t have known that she would prepare me for the cards of fate I would be dealt just days later.
Though I hadn’t had an illness of any kind in my 45 years, I was suspicious something wasn’t quite right. An ultrasound confirmed what a routine mammogram suggested — there were a few suspicious areas on my left breast. After a biopsy, MRI and PET/CT, I was officially diagnosed with breast cancer.
I am not a doctor; and I am not pretending to offer medical counsel. But with October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m simply sharing some of my personal experience with this disease. If you consider my advice before your doctor’s, you have bigger things to worry about than surviving breast cancer. But if sharing my thoughts gives the slightest comfort to anyone touched by it, then I am glad for it.
First Things First: YOU!
I brought a notebook with me to my doctor visits, asked a million questions, took notes and, in the end, followed the treatment plan as prescribed. Though it wasn’t easy to subject my body to a battery of tests, surgery, six rounds of three types of lethal intravenous chemicals, tattoo markers, 33 sessions of radiation followed by still more pharmaceuticals, it was what I chose to do. Your body, diagnosis and treatment plan is unique to you. Though you have to be your own advocate and educate yourself on your disease, avoid advice from the Internet, shut out everyone else’s suggestions and do what feels right for you.
Finally, a chance to be totally selfish without any judgment, guilt or cash register receipts! It is difficult for most women, mothers in particular, to make themselves a priority and let others care for them. Try to suck up your pride, check your nurturing nature and let others do things for you. It gives them an occupation that allows them to participate in your healing process, so in that way, you are helping them.
Don’t Bat an Eye
It’s easy to get ahead of yourself emotionally. I thought having a mastectomy would be the most devastating part of having breast cancer. It wasn’t. I said goodbye to my left boob by shaking my stuff one last time at a disco party with some gal pals. After my surgery in November 2011, I was so happy the cancer was removed I was all smiles from ear to ear. I realized I needed to try not to worry or anticipate how I would feel and instead just try to be in the moment with each experience as it happened and honor my true emotions whatever they may be.
So then I thought losing my golden mane of wavy hair as a side effect to chemotherapy would be the most devastating part of having breast cancer. It wasn’t. Like clockwork, 21 days after starting chemotherapy my hair started to fall out and my scalp was super sore (like having 100 ponytails in your hair for a week). Though my hairstylist was on standby to come to my house and cut my hair when I gave the signal (thanks Genevieve!), I begged my husband to cut my hair off with an electric razor. He was shaken up, but my head felt a hundred times better. How ironic that it was Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year.
I was the envy of the chemo room to have full eyebrows and long lush eyelashes going into my sixth and final chemo treatment on my husband’s birthday in March 2012. Three weeks later, when I thought I was in the clear, my face began to disappear. As my brows grew fainter, I felt my identity fading a little each day. I counted my lashes daily and winced as they dwindled to eight, then six and four, until just a single brave lash winked back at me. I looked in the mirror and wondered: “Who is this person staring back at me?’ And, I thought: ‘This is it. This is the hardest part. Losing these tiny hairs that frame up your face … and feeling invisible.”
I have come to realize that the image we portray to the world is a complex arrangement that we don’t typically see deconstructed. Cancer “calls” you out on your sense of identity, which I found personally revealing but also disarming.
Beauty is Only Skin Deep
Thank goodness our inner beauty is deeper than our derma. Despite trying every cream and ointment suggested, radiation was tougher on my skin than I expected it to be. Don’t be afraid to request pain medication and a sleep aid if you need it. I listened to music on headphones during treatment and tried to visualize a positive result. Like a butterfly, think about being completely transformed once you’re in your brand new skin.
Hold the Lettuce
If you are kind enough to provide a meal for a breast cancer patient, be mindful of the foods they may not be able to eat while in chemotherapy treatment and experiencing a compromised immune system. Fresh fruits that cannot be peeled and salad lettuce, for example, are healthy, but not a good idea, since these foods cannot be thoroughly washed. A high-calorie casserole may sound comforting, but may not be a great option for a patient already battling unwanted weight gain. Sugary treats are also a no-no, as certain breast cancers feed on sugar. Dishes high in protein and low in fat are always a good, healthy choice (baked fish or chicken and steamed broccoli for example). A cancer patient in chemotherapy needs 50 to 70 percent more protein each day than they usually do. So, ask for special orders before you deliver, and if nothing else, you can’t go wrong with homemade chicken soup.
Words can be healing, but they also can cause undue hurt. Patients aren’t seeking pity or reviewing their medical history, they want to move forward. When talking to a cancer patient, choose your words wisely. Don’t ask invasive personal questions unless they initiate it. One question that shows you care is: How can I help you?
Friends old and new and complete strangers gave me inspiration and encouragement. That gave me hope. People say that it takes courage to face cancer, and you have to be strong. I didn’t need to find strength. I had that. I needed to give myself permission to be weak. I felt vulnerable, and that was a humbling experience. Cancer is a lesson in humility.
Some people wonder “why me?” when something challenging happens. I say “why not me?” If I am strong enough to endure this, statistically speaking that means someone else will not have to. Sure, getting cancer can be seen as being handed a raw deal. But in life, you can only play the hand you’re dealt. And mine still feels like a winner. Here’s hoping the deck of life is stacked in your favor. Poker anyone? I’m feeling lucky!