By Heather Millar
Her first chemo infusion had been four days earlier and, as might be expected, she was feeling terrible in all the random ways that chemo affects patients: A red rash had spread over her body. She ached everywhere, a deep ache that seemed to spread from her bones outward. She felt anxious and didn’t want to be alone. She was nauseated and found it difficult to eat. And, to cap it all off, she couldn’t sleep.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I live in a multi-generational household with my husband, daughter, my bedridden mother, my mother’s two caregivers, and a menagerie of pets. One of my mother’s caregivers is going through treatment for breast cancer; she still spends about half her time at our house.
This caregiver is as quiet as I am loud. She is stoic and kind. I think the writers of the Christian gospels had someone like her in mind when they talked about the “meek and mild.”
It’s difficult to watch her suffer. She lets the hardship wash over her. She doesn’t expect it to be easy. You can tell she’s miserable, but she doesn’t complain. Part of me admires her ability to suffer in silence. The feisty part of me—that is to say, the greater part—rages against it.
I push and urge, and push some more: Don’t forget to ask for the anti-nausea meds, I remind her. Don’t forget to let your doctors know about side effects. Don’t forget to ask for help.
She always smiles when I nag this way. I’m never sure if she follows through, and part of the family-caregiver dynamic is that we need to let her put barriers where they feel comfortable for her.
But she mentions the sleep problem repeatedly. Take something to help you sleep! I say. Don’t worry about getting addicted to sleep aids; insomnia is a common side effect of chemo. You’ll wean off the drugs when they stop poisoning you.
She looks skeptical, and I understand her reluctance: She’s already taking so many drugs. I remember being floored by the number and variety of prescriptions that helped me get through chemo. No doubt she doesn’t want to take anything more medicines than are absolutely necessary.
But I push, aware that I may be overstepping. “Look,” I say, trying a new tack after we have talked about it several times. “If you want to heal, you have to sleep.”
Totally exhausted, she relents. The next morning, I check in with her, “How’d you sleep?”
Well, it turns out.
I am thrilled for her. I know I can’t make chemo easy for her. But, at least, it won’t be harder than it needs to be.