Cancer's in the Family - a how-to guide

I cried this morning on the elliptical machine as I worked out watching Brother's & Sisters on TiVo.  One of the sisters tells her family that she has stage-3 lymphoma and the show did a great job of capturing what that's really like for her and her family.  I know - I've been on the receiving end of that news a few times.  This is Breast Cancer Awareness month - so here's a Top Ten most important things to do when you find out that cancer's in the family.

  1. Take a deep breath. Cancer doesn't mean death.  Not always and not even most of the time.  It's exhausting, scary and damn inconvenient, but it doesn't mean death. 

  2. Don't say "Be Strong.  You can fight this.  You're going to win." because you don't know any of that and you are actually creating a lot of pressure on the patient.  Try - "I love you.  I'm so sad that this is happening to you.  I will be here for you night or day.".  It's what you mean anyway.

  3. Listen respectfully.  It's helpful to ask if the patient or primary caregiver wants to give you the details now or some other time.  If it's now, take notes.  They really don't enjoy going over it again and again.  If it's later, leave it alone until another time.

  4.  Offer to do something concrete rather than saying "how can I help?".  For example, a day care friend (i.e. we saw each other off and on for years at drop off and pick up) looked pretty haggard one day two years ago.  We have three kids the same ages.  I asked her what was wrong and she said her husband was diagnosed with bladder cancer a few days earlier.  I asked what stage - she said early.  Then I asked if she and he had had any time together to process this - and she looked at me the way a mother of three who works full time can look - no.  So I told her that I would take her kids.  The next weekend.  The entire weekend.  All three.  No strings.  And I told her to let me.  They did.  We had a great time - and more importantly, the mom and dad grieved, loved and girded for their battle.  Which they won.  So choose something to offer - 
    1. Cook or set up a meal delivery. both.
    2. Take over carpool duties for a day
    3. Do the laundry for them
    4. Go wig shopping (if a woman and chemo is on the menu)
    5. Take their primary caregiver out for a fun night
    6. Take their kids for a weekend or more
    7. Fly out to be with them for a period of treatment or recovery - if you are a self-sufficient guest

  5. Have fun with wig shopping.  It's an unfortunate reality of chemo that in most cases, your patient will lose her hair.  Be prepared.  Warm hats.  Scarves.  And wig shopping with a bottle of wine (and designated driver). Try on a few...encourage her to try new looks.  As my sister said - whenever is her husband going to be out with a redhead?

Wig, side view

  1. Make time to deal with your feelings.  Everyone feels terrible for the patient and then feels guilty because the next set of thoughts are about what if this happens to me.  Often followed by what is this person's illness going to mean to me.  It's normal.  It's not happening to you and you don't know what it would be like if it were - so don't spend time imagining it.  And the illness is going to disrupt your life.  Potentially a lot.  And it will remind you of all the blessings in your life and of the gifts we get every day by being here.  So, roll with it.  Hug your kids.

  2. Tell people - with permission.  If the patient is ready to be public and you are going to take an active role supporting him or her, you need your people to know.  Your boss. Your friends.  Because you are going to need them.  Earlier this year, I got two calls within two minutes from my sister.  That's family code for PICK UP THE PHONE.   I answered "are you alright?" and the response I got was a sob and "no, I'm not.  Can you meet me at CPMC now."  I told my colleagues that I had to meet my sister at the hospital and was leaving.  They knew she'd been having complications from a post-cancer surgery and there was support around me. Everyone goes through this sooner or later - just tell people what's going on.

  3. Tell the patient how you feel about them.  Especially if the cancer is advanced and terminal.  Don't wait to tell them what they mean to you and how you feel about them.  It's a good idea to do that every day with everyone you love anyway - but this is a time to make a special effort. Cancer doesn't pick it's patients and it's not fair or just.  It just is.

  4. Don't tell the patient what to do.  Don't tell them about the treatments that worked or didn't for someone else.  You aren't their doctor and you don't have the details.  If they want your advice, they'll ask for it.  You are there to support them - you cannot fix this, so don't try.

  5. Work to fund research for better treatments, earlier detection, vaccines and more.  I've been theSupport Sandi & Breast Cancer Research daughter, sister, grand-daughter and friend of cancer patients.  I've been blessed not to have been one so far.  I do NOT want to be the mother of one.  I cannot imagine how hard that is.  My mother, a 26 year survivor, is doing her Race for the Cure in January.  She walks for me, my sister, my niece and my daughter.  I hope you'll support her or your favorite cancer advocacy and research non-profit.

Please comment with additional coaching you would give to someone just learning that cancer's in their family. And if you are in the battle - I hope you win.