By Cancer Hope Network Volunteer, Lynne D. Feldman, MA, JD
“You have invasive breast cancer.” Oct. 1, 2010
“You have lung cancer in your left lobe.” Nov. 23, 2010
“You have a potentially life-threatening cellulitis infection.” Dec. 17, 2010
I received these three diagnoses in what seemed like a blur of bad and worse news. Just as I was beginning to acclimate to my breast cancer diagnosis and to comprehend what the treatment regimen might entail, I was hit with the news that a routine body scan revealed an asymptomatic but lethal lung cancer. As someone who never smoked and was not around a smoking environment, this news struck me harder than the breast cancer diagnosis. Less than a month later I faced a third major surgery to combat a severe cellulitis infection that came from my breast reconstruction.
Out of the blue, Lightning strikes. My friends didn’t know what to say to me. One actually stopped being my close friend. Yet from near and far, from neighbors to internet acquaintances, I did receive reactions to the unfolding news of my trifecta of cancer and cancer-related surgeries. Some nourished me while others appeared to be delivered with the best of intention…but missed the mark a bit. These are just a few things I found helpful (and not so helpful) during my cancer journey…
Talk about hopeful cancer stories. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is scary enough, what rattled me even more was hearing about horrific cancer stories…about their Uncle Joe’s horrible death from pancreatic cancer, about a friend’s death from inflammatory breast disease who left behind three little children. Telling me about Cousin Syd’s current third round of chemo for prostate cancer didn’t help me to either process my diagnosis or to make decisions about my own cancer treatment. Cancer Hope Network has the right idea in pairing up people with similar cancers and treatment protocols. Talking to someone who had a similar cancer experience and got through it, instills HOPE…and that is something that is crucially needed during such a dark and scary time.
Sincerely offering to help goes a long way. I was assisted tremendously by offers to drive me to, and stay with me during, chemo treatments. As much as some friends called on a routine basis and offered “help”, only one offered to drive me to my appointment and keep me company during the prolonged treatment. Offering to help the cancer patient is a noble gesture, but unspecified assistance is as supportive as saying “have a nice day.” Ask the person if she/he needs a ride, a meal cooked for the patient and family, baby-sitting, or shopping. Ask them what they might need and let them get specific. A sincere offer to help really goes a long way and further helps the person going through a diagnosis and treatment, that they are truly not alone.
Keep in mind people have different religious beliefs. A cancer diagnosis shouldn’t be related to your religious beliefs…or lack of. I don’t believe I was given this because a deity thought I could handle it…Even if this is your sincerely held religious or spiritual belief, please keep it to yourself. If I followed this logic, it would mean that my three serious surgeries and their painful aftermaths were punishments for not being less able to cope. I wound up feeling momentarily angry at a God that would do this just because I was a resilient person.
Put patients on prayer lists and include them in your meditations. Even though I was not of their religion, I was deeply touched that I was entered onto prayer lists of many different denominations. We know that this has a positive effect, even if it is just in knowing that someone took the time to put me on that list and mention my name during a sacred service. My husband and I have incorporated this practice when we say our Friday night Sabbath prayers.
Be present. By this I mean to present yourself to the person with cancer without trying to control or alter the situation. Sometimes just letting me vent about my pain, or share a funny animal picture on Facebook with me was healing.
I was hit by lightning…Three times.
I didn’t do anything that I know of to bring this upon myself, any more than someone hit by actual lightning does. I needed time to process the physical, emotional, and spiritual impacts of what I was facing. I needed those in my life to be respectful of this process by both giving me space and by holding out a practical, simple, and direct hand to help.
And I believe that by volunteering with Cancer Hope Network…I am paying forward what was given to me.