By Heather Millar
I’ve mentioned a couple of times that we have a family friend who has metastatic lung cancer. I’ve known him and his partner since I was eight years old.
As a younger man, this cancer patient was always in motion: maintaining a rambling house crammed with books and pictures and antiques, hosting acclaimed dinner parties, painting in oil, teaching music and musical theater at a high school, playing piano, playing the organ in a Unitarian church, running several miles a day, walking a series of little dogs all named “Fred,” making his own French bread.
Even in his 80s, even with severe disk problems, he kept on keeping on. He still swam every day when he could no longer run or walk or cook. After he discovered hiking poles, he started walking again. He always put on a cheery face, even when you knew he was in pain.
Then came the cancer diagnosis. He said he was “Fine!” He said the cancer had spread, but “I’m OK!” He kept on walking. He kept on smiling. He said the first chemo drug wasn’t working, “But they’re going to put me on something else!”
I’m embarrassed to say that it took me a while before I really, really realized that things were not great for these old friends. Little hints of bitterness and fear poked through the brave front: “You know, I haven’t smoked a day in my life.” “I have my ‘doctors of doom’ appointment tomorrow.”
I saw him with his hiking poles yesterday and he looked ashen. His face was swollen, probably from Prednisone or some other steroid that’s helping him endure the chemo poisons. Suddenly, I was overcome with shame. Why hadn’t I done anything yet? He was diagnosed more than three months ago!
So I got together a frozen care package: big containers of corn chowder, black bean soup, pasta e fagiole (Tuscan bean soup) and walked it across the street yesterday. The well partner met me at the door. He looked almost as ashen as his partner of 60 years. A professor emeritus, he had always been the one who’d taken care of finances, car repair and such, not the cooking and cleaning. The strain of being suddenly thrust into the hurly-burly of household management showed on his face, as if he was acutely aware how hard it was to follow his partner’s act. He looked sad, a bit disheveled, absolutely exhausted.
“Oh! You brought soup! He’s been asking for soup,” the healthy partner exclaimed. “I tried to get him some Progresso soup, but he didn’t like that. Sometimes, I pick something up for him at the coffee shop, but it’s not that good.”
It’s a long way from being an acclaimed gourmet cook to tinned soup and takeout. It was hard to imagine the man who’d first exposed me to gourmet French food eating from cans. I hadn’t realized how much they were struggling. I hadn’t realized they’d installed a chair elevator in their main staircase.
Why hadn’t they said anything?
Then I remembered my own experience: Toward the end of my active treatment, during my six weeks of radiation, the parents in my daughter’s class organized a “meal train” for a our family. By that time, I’d been through the worst of surgery and chemo. Yet, since we were new to the school community, and since I had done a clinical trial that kept my hair from falling out, most of the parents didn’t know that I was sick. Even though I was writing a blog about my experience, I didn’t broadcast my cancer around the school. When they found out, other parents expressed shock, and sympathy, and they sent food.
It was good, very good.
Cooking is my hobby, and I’m the cook when I’m well. Many days toward the end, my family was reduced to microwaved burritos. As the radiation flat-lined my energy reserves, those care packages from the school got us through to the treatment finish line.
Last night, as I lay in bed thinking about all this, I resolved to organize a meal train for our family friends. I’ve already signed up two other neighbor families.
Sure, our dear family friends should have asked, but they didn’t. Most patients don’t. I didn’t. Call it pride, politeness, modesty, independence. We’re reluctant to ask for help.
Sure, I should have offered. But most friends and family aren’t so sure about that. Call it respect, or “giving people space,” or “not wanting to intrude.” We’re sheepish about offering help.
This should be the first precept of the cancer patient rulebook: Ask for help if you need it. Give it, if you can.
I can’t wait to make coq au vin (yummy chicken with burgundy stew) for the man who introduced me to that classic French dish. He’ll enjoy it, I hope. But, I suspect, I will enjoy making it even more.