By Cancer Hope Network volunteer, Suzanne Prichard
I recently returned to the hospital where I received my primary cancer treatment four years ago. But, this time, I am visiting with my father, who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. And so began a new perspective on my cancer journey…becoming a caregiver and an advocate for my father.
Many of the same staff members are still working at the Cancer Center and it was a joy to see them again. Although, I’m not ashamed to admit that I am relieved to be feeling a whole lot better than I did the last time I was here. My father was one of the people who came to my appointments with me in 2011. And now here we are, returning to see the hospital, the cancer center, the infusion suite (or, “the place with the free coffee and bagels,”) the lab, and everything else…with our roles reversed.
My father’s treatments are scheduled every third week, along with several doctor’s visits, whereas mine occurred several times a week over three months, followed by a stem cell transplant so, as you can see, I have a special familiarity with the place.
New furniture, the addition of a resource center on the first floor, and the subtraction of the pediatric cancer center to the Children’s Hospital, even new artwork: I noted them all. I’ve learned so much about cancer care and about myself over the last four years, and in a way, I feel like some strange kind of cancer “specialist.”
I’m now a new kind of patient: noting the changes in treatment protocols, additions of new drugs and services that hospitals offer, seeing the different architecture of infusion suites. I find it necessary to point out gaps in my care not just for myself, but as an advocate for patients who follow me. They are the people whom I am privileged to help on the phone as a Cancer Hope Network volunteer and the ones in wheelchairs whom I talk to in the waiting rooms.
When I tell them I was in their spot four years ago, I can see the hope that gives them, since I look very healthy and I feel fine. I was not in a position to advocate for myself when I was really ill, and maybe they are also facing those challenges. I want to help their caregivers too, as I know how much mine suffered while helping me. We are a special community, and I feel responsible for them in some way.
This brings me back to my father, who now needs my assistance. Despite my “specialist” role, I still find caring for him to be a challenge. Despite his outward appearance of acceptance of his diagnosis and his optimistic attitude about surviving longer than either of his parents ever did, I suspect he is still scared, and he cannot be enjoying our visits.
As I advocate for him, I’m faced with a blurred line of separation between myself, and others. When can I be fully sure that he does not want more help? I, of all people, understand how hard it is for him to ask for it.
This dilemma of responsibility is a problem I know to be a universal human one and the only way I can live with it, is to cultivate patience and respond to his complaints by telling him that I love him. I can share my experience, show him what worked for me, show what helped me through anxiety, fatigue, sadness, and the pain of cancer, then step back and patiently wait.
With my friends, I comfort them by telling them I understand the challenges of working at a job I hated; or of being scared about my finances; feeling insecure and lonesome or dealing with a divorce. I too experienced a number of challenges that manifested themselves in all kinds of human suffering. Living with cancer has given me the perspective that these challenges are all temporary. When you accept that nothing is permanent, including your current suffering, you are never “stuck.” This is when you will experience some measure of peace. So what can you do now to make that peace happen? Sometimes the best thing you can do is ask for a loved one’s help.
In the end, my father’s experience is his own. When his journey with cancer is over, and his experience of living with his suffering is through, I know I’ll be at peace because I’m already there. Thanks to my own cancer journey, I’ve found my role in life. It’s recognizing the beauty of that blurred line: I‘ve learned that patience in the face of the suffering of loved ones is really the best I can do. That’s a lesson worth learning.