By Heather Millar
Most cancer patients I know have an all-too-detailed sense of the toll that their disease and treatment takes on those who love and care for them. For most of us, asking for help is one of the most difficult things to do.
And we cancer patients need so much help: help with the household to keep the groceries and laundry and bills from veering out of control, help keeping our spirits up when things are scary or we’re miserable from treatment, help getting to appointments, help remembering things, help with finances if lost income is a problem, help with some of the simplest tasks.
I’ll never forget how solicitous my daughter Erin was when I spiked a fever during chemo and we thought I might have to go to the emergency room. She was not quite 10, but she suddenly became the mother, taking my temperature, getting me water, cuddling in bed with me.
During those same days, my husband Pete never complained when I asked him to do something I could have done for myself. By bedtime during chemo, I was usually so tired that I just couldn’t face getting out of bed to count out the zillion pills that I had to take. I don’t know why I never put them in a pill organizer. I just didn’t, and my husband good-naturedly counted them out each night.
I had, I have, so many people to thank: Friends who set up a collection so that we could afford some take-out and housecleaning. A friend who drove me to early-morning radiation treatments. Friends who flew from New York to take care of me. I could go on and on.
Then, eventually, the cycle of treatment ends. Many things remind us patients that we’ve just been to hell and back: Perhaps it’s the peach fuzz on a head as hair regrows, or fingernails that are still weak and cracking a year after treatment, the lingering fatigue that may take years to resolve, the moods that may not be as even as they were before cancer intruded.
As we try to weather treatment and then rebuild our lives, it’s easy to forget that our caregivers also have to work at recovering. A couple of things have recently reminded me that my family still struggles to make sense of the cancer experience.
Last week, I had a 6-month oncology check-up. My nurse practitioner says she’s concerned about a small lesion on my left breast, not far from the lumpectomy scar. She refers me to a dermatologist. It’s probably nothing, I told my husband that night.
But he asks me again and again that night, “Are you OK? Are you really OK? You’d tell me if you weren’t OK, right?”
He is asking himself as much as he is asking me.
A couple of nights before that, I picked up my daughter from her girls’ chorus rehearsal. We were joking around and I said flippantly, “Well, it’s not like I’m going to DIE or anything.”
My 10-year-old suddenly looked very, very serious. “I don’t want to talk about that,” she said gravely.
Later that night, I found her glued to YouTube, tears streaming, as she watched, again and again, a video about a Japanese Akita who waited for his master at the train station every day, even after the master died suddenly.
Note to self: No more death jokes. And don’t forget that you’re not the only one that carrying that cancer baggage. The caregivers’ load is heavy, too.