Tag Archives: Emotional Support

Scary Movie

It was a dark and windy Friday night, when the creeping terrors began to stalk me… inching ever-nearer… closing in closer and closer around me.  There may as well have been a shaky camera shot from the psychotic killer’s point of view (I guess that would be a super-magnified shot of my cellular activity) and foreboding, eerie music. 

It’s my own private horror film, ladies and gentlemen, with screenings nightly. 

And seriously, you can ask my big brother, I cannot watch horror films – never could.  I’m a total chicken.  I watched The Shining in the ‘80s and I still get nightmares about those creepy twins in the hallway.  Depending on the carpet and wallpaper, I won’t walk unescorted down certain hotel corridors to this very day. So you can imagine how well I do when the horror film plot centres around me as the constantly stalked target of unspeakable evil.

And Friday night, there I was once again, playing the victim, getting all freaked out and terrified and tearful. I slid deeper under the duvet, but it was no use trying to hide! The floorboards creaked in the hallway and the bedroom door slooowly opened… And in walked my husband.

“Hey. What’s going on here?” he asked, seeing me all balled up under the duvet, hugging my knees.

“Um, just having a little freak out.” I squeaked.

“Ohlalamonamourvraiment” He said, just like that, all in one mashed-up French word that basically means “Oh no, not again.” He plopped down on the bed and gathered me up in his arms.

“Yup,” I said, “I’m freaking out that I’m going to die and wondering how you and Georgia are going to handle it…”  Which was only partly true.  What I was specifically freaking out about was whether Georgia should be at my funeral or whether it would screw her up for life.

I know. How morbid! How horribly melodramatic!  Even I can’t stand it – I want to slap myself to snap me out of it. 

Luckily I’m not in charge of consoling me and my husband isn’t a slapper.  Usually he lets me cry it out, probably feeling helpless as hell, until he can safely say something to make me smile or laugh and we can wade hand in hand out of the muck of fear and sadness onto terra firma again. Or terra temporarily less squelchy.

Not this time.  This time he wasn’t having any of this terrorized woman hiding under the duvet crap.  He was even a little bit stern with me (which honestly is a tactic I might employ with myself if I were in fact in charge of consoling me.) 

He told me that I am not gone yet and that I need to stop imagining myself gone.  He asked me – actually pleaded with me – to stay here-and-now, to try hard to stop thinking about death.  And if I can’t, then at least to try to stop letting it into the bedroom at night right before I’m supposed to fall asleep, because even if it can be liberating to confront fears of death, it sure isn’t conducive to sleep.

This is obviously extremely sensible, extremely practical, especially coming from a Frenchman.  And he wasn’t taking no for an answer, either.  So I agreed.  Actually I was surprisingly relieved to be bossed around like that; to be instructed to stop thinking about the big D, just when I had laid claim to being allowed to think and talk about it whenever I want to.  Because I realized that it’s a fine line, and if I’m not careful, it’s not me that lays claim to the fear, but the fear that will claim me. 

Not that anybody should get any ideas about bossing me around on a regular basis.

Now, what I really need to do is move the stack of cancer books away from my bedside and get my hands on a few good novels. Preferably not anything that involves creepy little girls with big foreheads and matching dresses.

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The Things That Friends Will Do

My friend Graham and I have known each other since we were two years old; our moms were best friends before his mom died after 14 years of ferociously and bravely fighting breast cancer (metastatic breast cancer for 7 of those.)

I know – the coincidence of my diagnoses is a little freaky.  And I loved Graham’s mom to the brink of total adoration, but I swear I never meant to emulate her quite so literally.

Anyway, Graham and his family have been incredibly supportive of me, and so when he one day said “You know I would do anything for you – you just have to ask and I’m there,” I knew he really meant it.  And my evil twin knew an opportunity when she saw it: she arched an evil eyebrow and said “Anything?” and then lapsed into deranged, villainous laughter, “Mwa-ha-haaaaaa! Mwa-ha-ha-HAAAA….”

Well, not really.  I actually said, “I’d love to just hang out sometime. Would you come get a pedicure with me?”

And so it was that my totally non-metrosexual lifelong friend Graham had his very first pedicure.  He was very brave.  I suspect he even enjoyed it.

Oh the extremes to which friends will go to show you they love you!

Thanks, old friend.

 
 

 

 

*Anyone else ever notice how pedicure chairs look a lot like chemo chairs with little bathtubs attached to them?  Perhaps the chemo clinic could get a few tubs attached, invite some estheticians in, et voila: chemo-pedis! Genius?  I think yes!

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With A Little Help From My Friends

As I get back into the groove (such as it is) of the chemo/side-effects/recovery cycle, some amazing friends of mine have set up a kind of online volunteer community for me on this website. It’s a user-friendly place where people can sign up to help out with things like lifts to and from hospital, or making meals for the freezer. The site is really well thought-out; for example when you put something like a hospital pick-up date on the calendar, notes immediately pop up, including time, location, link to a map and other details. 

And it was fairly easy to set up – or so says the superstar friend who coordinates it from her home in a small town North of the city.  (It’s one of the many ways she has found to not let geography get in her way of getting in my cancer’s face.)  She sent out an e-mail to a list of friends and family inviting them to join, et voila — a little army of volunteers was assembled, and they make my life easier and my cancer more manageable, one little favour at a time.

It’s been so helpful, not to mention pretty humbling and moving to see people checking in and signing up to help.  When you lose so much control over your life – when it sometimes feels like you’re losing the shape of life as you knew it completely – it can be really hard to ask for and accept help, because that can feel like an acknowledgement of the loss of control. But as far as I can tell, learning to accept help takes more courage than pretending you don’t need it. Needing help and not asking for it is the path to curmudgeonhood. Whereas when you accept help, it’s the equivalent of thanking someone for their friendship.  At least that’s how I see it, and it’s my blog so I get to say it like it’s the law.

This website is one way to make it both easier to ask and more practical to volunteer for help in a time of need. Check it out: http://www.lotsahelpinghands.com

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Puppy Love

As long and exhausting as my day at the hospital was Thursday, there were some pretty nice perks to make it more manageable. The Day Chemo ward, it turned out, was so overloaded trying to catch up on missed days over the holidays that I was told I would be moved to a bed in a private room on another floor. Did someone say Private Room?  Hello, yes please! Not that I don’t love the social atmosphere and familiar faces in the Day Chemo clinic, but I was tired and had an long day ahead of me so I welcomed the prospect of solitude and sleep – my mom was all the company I needed.  Plus, let’s be honest, who doesn’t like a little extra pampering?

My smart nurse, Roz, probably knew all this when she sent me down to what, after about 15 minutes, I came to refer to as Hotel Chemo. (Or, because it rhymed with my nurse’s name, Chez José.) My five-star experience included: a comfy bed in a quiet place, a door that closed, lights that dimmed, a hot meal (well, okay, I declined the hospital food and my mom went on a food run), fantastic care from a great nurse (this is actually the norm no matter which floor I’m on), and …wait for it… a visit from the therapist pictured below:

Differently to other therapists I’ve encountered, this one is very cuddly. Zoe snuggled right up with me and just hung out on her little towel on my bed, keeping me company for a while before making the rounds of the in-patient oncology ward.  Can you imagine?  She’s just this little furry ball of sweetness out to make people smile.

I had never heard of this before –  this “pet therapy” – but it’s really a nice thing. Here is the website if you want to learn more about these caring canines: http://www.tpoc.ca It’s amazing the comfort a little puppy love can provide.

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In-Between Days

I was reading a book last night in which the narrator said something like, “Each day is someone’s first and someone’s last, but all those in between become just another day.”  To which I thought: “What complete B.S. — surely it’s all the ones in between that count?”

Then, since my birthday is this week, I lay there in bed thinking about first days and last days.  My first day was 38 years ago… When will my last day be? And that’s when the thought popped into my mind: “Wow, we should really celebrate my birthday this year because I may not have very many birthdays left.” 

Um, whoa there. I just got fantastic results on my latest CT scans. Where did this party-crashing thought come from? From whence did this completely uninvited and so out of step with my little tango with cancer, icky thought emerge?  This really, totally depressing, totally miserable little thought.

I mean — sick or not, old or young — of course it’s natural for people to entertain thoughts of their own demise from time to time.  I myself have made a lifelong game of selecting my own funeral music.  (‘She’s Gone’, by Hall & Oates, is the current frontrunner.)  But this thought of having only a few birthdays left was just so… Melodramatic? Woeful? And yet so powerful.

At that moment my husband came in to the room, saw my face and immediately took me in his arms and asked me what was wrong. Through the tears that ensued, I managed to mumble the may-not-have-many-left thing into his shoulder.  “Mais non!” He said, squeezing the bejeezus out of me (did I mention he’s French? and absolutely dashing, not that it’s relevant?) “What could make you think such a thing? You know that you will have as many birthdays as I know I will have — nobody can say how many they have left!  Non! Those stupid spots are shrinking and that’s that!”

And, actually, a few sniffles later, that was that, because he has a way of comforting me and making me laugh with his stubborn refusal to let anything scare me so long as he can help it.  He has a conviction that is deep and strong and it says “you are going to live” — and I hear it every time.  He also has a whole sort of talk-to-the-hand thing that he does with the dark thoughts and it works like magic to quell my fears.  At least it did this time. And probably will again next time, and the time after that.

So, I’ll be celebrating this birthday – of course I will, I love birthdays, mine or anyone else’s (when I remember them!) First days, last days… they matter too.  But it’s all the ones in between that shape a life. And yes, maybe they’re numbered, but they’re numbered for everyone.  All the more reason to enjoy them. Yesterday was just another in-between day, and look what happened: I read a book, got freaked out, and then wound up falling in love with my husband all over again. Or remembering why I fell in the first place.

So let’s hear it for in-between days, however many or few of them there may be, and for those we spend them with.

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Never Let Go of the Potato: What to Say When Someone Has Cancer

This post is a follow-up to my hugely unhelpful and paralysis-inducing post Ten Things Not To Say To Someone With Cancer. In an effort to make amends for freezing the tongues of well-meaning loved-ones, I’ll provide a quick round-up of some of the best things anyone has ever said to me concerning my cancerousness.  Some are originals, some are quotes – for various reasons they’ve all worked for me.  Herewith, in no particular order, some of my favourites:

  • “Never Let Go Of The Potato” My French brother-in-law enthusiastically offered up this Louisiana expression — lâche pas la patate — freely admitting he had no idea what it meant.  I like it for its absurdity and passion, like a slogan Che Guevara might have shouted, fist in air …if he had been a revolutionary, um, potato farmer.  But the point is, if the patate in question represents life, well, then I vow to lâche onto it with all I’ve got.

 

  • I feel sorry for the cancer.” I know I’ve mentioned this one before – but my friend Ben’s delivery was so good I felt like Al Capone.

 

  • “When in hell, keep walking.” A version of Winston Churchill’s “Keep Buggering On” which is another of my absolute all-time favourites.

 

  • “For myself I am an optimist. It does not seem to be much use being anything else.” Truly, I could do a whole list of Churchill quotes, god love the old soak.  This one came to me from my friend Scotty Douglas.  

 

  • “I’m not only here for you, I’m in-cancer’s-face here for you.”  And its true, she was, and is, and I can’t begin to tell you how I love her for it.

 

  • “Yes, we’re Lifers, but it sure beats the alternative.”  This, from a friend with the BRAC cancer gene – who has so far beaten both breast and pancreatic cancer, thank-you very much – in response to my whining that we were stuck dealing with cancer for the rest of our lives. Her point was, better to spend your life fighting, than not to have a life to spend at all.

 

  • “In the words of Bruce Cockburn, “We’re gonna kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight!”   I could have posted this friend’s letter in its entirety, it was so on-the-money for my headspace that dark day (and so many days since!) but it was just so well written I’m afraid that might lead to someone offering him the book deal I want for myself, so all you’re getting is this great Bruce Cockburn quote.

There are more, so many more.  And the writers/speakers of these things are brave souls – all of them – for finding their own way to tell me I’m loved and not alone at times when I need to hear that more than anything.  But in fact, sometimes just saying “I love you.  You’re not alone, I promise.” is the most powerful thing you can say.  That is, as long as you don’t go off and forget that you promised to actually be there.

I think this would be a good list to keep going.  From time to time I’d like to post round-ups of things both well-meant and well said on the maddening subject of my having cacner.  There are actually so many of them that they effectively eclipse the many things that were well-meant but catastrophically said.  And if anyone out there wants to contribute to this round-up of What to Say to Someone with Cancer, please do – I’ll collect as many quotes as I can, and together we’ll post something that will liberate all those poor people who live in fear of saying the wrong thing, especially those I drove into total verbal paralysis with my Ten Things Not to Say post.  Perhaps we won’t be providing snappy one-liners to throw out at cocktail parties when the subject of cancer just happens to rear it’s buzz-killing head, but I think it could still be really useful to share what helps (and what doesn’t.)  You never know what’s going to work for someone when she or he needs it most — be it the person with cancer or the tongue-tied loved-one.

 

P.S. By way of explanation of my recent absence from the blogosphere: I’ve been away — and I’m going away again (escaping up north, with my little family and some friends!) which makes me a very happy woman and a very delinquent blogger.  Apologies – will be less delinquent next week.

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10 Things Not To Say To Someone With Cancer

You’d think having breast cancer would give me some idea of how to react or what to say when I hear that someone I know has cancer, but it doesn’t seem to work like that.  I’m still sometimes just as mute and aghast as the next guy. But — at the risk of paralyzing you further when you are next faced with talking to someone with cancer — I can help with what not to say.  Here are some pointers:

1.  “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” Please, make an effort. Use your imagination.  And above all, don’t be dismissive of the person’s legitimate right to feel totally freaked out.  Cancer is serious business. It’s Darth Vader, the Bogeyman and weird Haitian voodoo hexes all rolled into one.  Let’s respect the fear, but nurture the hope.  Try telling the person that you’re sending her prayers/energy/good mojo/whatever. Plagiarize — grab a quote from someone she’s inspired by (Winston Churchill’s “Keep buggering on” works for me.) Or, if you can pull it off, make her laugh, like my friend Ben did when he said: “I can’t believe it picked you… I feel sorry for the cancer.”

2. “My cousin had cancer and she never missed a day of work, even when she was having chemo.”  Well, la-tee-da! I hate her already. This is called Lance Armstronging.  We are not all going to win the Tour de France 150 times during our cancer treatment.  I do understand the intention to show by example what is possible; that a person can beat her cancer and it need not even slow her down, rah rah sis boom bah.  But go gently, brave cheerleader, if you’re going this route. Avoid Lance Armstronging.

3.  “You should try a macrobiotic diet/seeing my guru/eating all your meals while standing on your head/etc.”  There are many things outside of conventional medicine that can have amazing results.  If you want to suggest something that might involve a big change for a person with cancer, remember that she might be trying just about everything she can manage already.  You can inadvertently set her up to feel like she’s not really “fighting” if she doesn’t take your advice and meditate with a Shaman in Goa.  If you passionately believe in a certain remedy, try an open-ended approach: “If you’re not really into talking about this let me know, but I heard of something I wanted to share with you, and you can feel free to take it or leave it.” 

4.  “You have to beat this for your daughter/son/kids.”  Oh really? Because I wasn’t already lying awake at night in a cold sweat, just praying I’m going to see my child’s 10th birthday/bar mitzvah/wedding.  But thanks for pointing it out, and adding that extra layer of self-blame if my next test results aren’t so hot… I know that this sort of statement is intended to get the person to draw on her inner parental love-power and pull through for the sake of her kids, and yep, that ferocious love is a pretty potent force.  Nobody, sick or healthy, wants to imagine not being there as their children grow up. Sadly, you can do everything in your power to beat cancer and still not win – but is that because you didn’t love your kids enough?

5.  “I read a study that said __________.” Please see recent blog posts on the dangers of interpreting statistics and studies.  If you read something that is interesting or that you think is important, tread very carefully when bringing it up with someone who has cancer.  Even if you’re a doctor, your information – or misinformation – can have a huge psychological impact, and not always for the better.

6. “Think of cancer as a gift/lesson/opportunity.”  Let me ask you this, oh spewer of bunk, which kind of gift would you prefer: a bracelet/flowers/spa treatment… OR a disease that robs you of your health, job, hair, vitality, fertility and possibly your life?  Need some time to think it over?  Let me tell you what I would choose: not to have cancer ever again anymore for the rest of my life.  That is a gift. However… there was a woman I knew and admired and loved like a second mom, and she used to refer to her cancer as “a gift wrapped in barbed wire.” This acknowledged that the experience of cancer did bring many positive things (inner strength, deep connections with other people, perspective on life – whatever) but that it was painful and hurtful and excruciating to get to those things. So in Mary Sue’s honour, I will allow this: if you really, really insist on suggesting that cancer is a gift, please emphasize that its one that comes wrapped in barbed wire and rolled around in a lot of crap, resembling a giant, spiky and foul-smelling truffle. 

7. “Should you be having that glass of wine / cheeseburger / Marlboro Light / triple sundae with chocolate sauce / tequila body shot?”  (Gosh, that does sound like a good time, doesn’t it??) OK, we all know that there are things that aren’t good for us; things that studies show are linked to different cancers; things that we should avoid.  Personally, when I indulge in these sorts of things from time to time I do so because I want to feel normal.  Because they make me happy.  Because I’ve had a bad day, dammit. Whatever the reason, I probably already know I shouldn’t be indulging, and I probably don’t need you to call me on it.  My standard line is always, “You just worry about yourself, I’ve already got cancer.”

 8. “Stay positive, it’s all in the attitude.”  Before you say this, consider: Have you ever tried staying positive when all your hair falls out and you’re afraid of dying?  Actually, this statement is not necessarily a no-no, but it’s a really tough call, because while keeping a positive attitude is important, it’s not necessarily going to affect your longevity.  Apparently it’s authenticity that counts – feeling what you’re feeling when you feel it.  Nobody can be positive all the time, so why should someone with cancer be able to constantly maintain a chipper outlook?  Instead of telling someone her health depends on her positive attitude, just try doing what you can to make her life easier when she’s feeling like crap.

9. “We didn’t invite you because we thought you wouldn’t be up to it.”  Don’t. Ever. Do. This.  Always invite the person with cancer even if you know she’s bed-ridden.  Make sure she knows that there’s no pressure to attend, but that you wanted her to know she’s included anyway. Keep inviting her to everything you would if she weren’t sick – the block party, the girls’ lunch, the political rally, the tarts-and-vicars soirée – everything. Let it be her choice if she can make it or not. You’ll be making her feel that she’s still part of the world; still herself.  And besides, you never know when she might actually be up for one of these events.

 10. “So-and-so said that getting your kind of cancer at your age is the worst because it means your chances of survival are terrible, and I was like, Oh this is so upsetting, why are you telling me this??” Why indeed, would anyone ever tell anyone that? Why would someone then recount it to the person with said “terrible chances of survival?”  Yet someone really did say this to me once, without even realizing what she was saying. And I love her still, in spite of it. 

I guess I wanted to end with that one to make the point that you can’t really say the wrong thing if your heart is in the right place.  I mean, you can obviously (and quite spectacularly!) but it’s not the end of the world. And it shouldn’t be the end of a friendship.  Love is clumsy sometimes. There’s no perfect thing to say, because everyone is different, and everyone’s cancer is different.  Maybe the best approach is “I love you and I hate that you have to go through this, but I’m here for you.” 

And then don’t forget to actually be there.

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