Going It Alone

It is obvious that many of these remarks have been directed toward the person with cancer who is part of a family. Some live alone, however, and some feel they have no one to “live for.” This increases loneliness and can make the will to live seem a bitter irony. They may want to pull the covers over their head and “get it over with.” If you have no one else to provide encouragement, you have to act as your own cheering squad. It is hard, but it’s not impossible. An amazing gentleman of 73, who had been treated on and off for 8 years for Hodgkin’s disease, described how he coped. “I kept on fighting. This is what you must do. Positive thinking and an active life are two things which will do a great deal to relieve the tension.” In order to stay involved with life and mentally active, he enrolled in the university where he had received his Bachelor of Arts degree and began work on his master’s degree. “Some people think I’m crazy,” he admits. “Maybe I am, but it is a nice crazy anyway. At least, I have achieved happiness.”

An elderly woman decided to “start a new life, make what’s left of this one count.” She started helping a state school for the retarded, and her home became “a depot for people with used clothing and toys. Now I have branched out to helping with nursing homes. I am so busy and happy; I have no worries.”

Not everyone can go beyond him or herself and give to others to this extent. You might not have the physical or emotional strength. It may not be natural to you, and you are still the same person you were. But many find cancer is easier to live with if they choose constructive ways to fill their time-to make part of each day count for what they can put into it.

Support From the Family

The desire to “do something” is common among nearly everyone with a family member or dear friend who has cancer. There is nothing you can do to change the course of cancer, so you do everything you can for the person. Sometimes, doing everything is the worst course to follow.

People with cancer still have the same needs and often the same capabilities as they did before. If they are physically able, they need to participate in their normal range of activities and responsibilities-right down to taking out the garbage. Helplessness, or worse, an unnecessary feeling of helplessness, is one of the great woes of the person with cancer. In the words of one:

“I am deeply angry over the way patients (not only cancer patients but any patient with a life-threatening diagnosis) are automatically treated as if we were mentally incompetent. Our relatives have RIGHTS; we have none. This is by a sort of mutual consent, an unconscious conspiracy which seems to be part of our culture. Let an individual become a patient . . . and he is treated, without any ‘competency hearing,’ as if he had been found in a court of law to be incompetent. Only the relatives are consulted or empowered to make decisions…”

There is great bitterness in this woman’s words, and they can stand as a lesson to all. Although bedridden, a patient probably still is able to discuss treatment options, financial arrangements, and the children’s school problems. The rest of the family must make every effort to preserve as much as possible the patient’s usual role within the family.

The least you can do is to keep the patient informed of necessary decisions. You can help the seriously ill patient ward off feelings of helplessness or abandonment if you continue to share your activities, goals, and dreams as before.

Few of us who are well know what it is like to be placed in a position of dependency. Cancer attacks one’s self-concept as a whole person as well as threatening one’s life. Feelings of helplessness are real enough when one is flat on one’s back. Make every effort not to compound them by ignoring the wishes of the patient, or worse, by trying to make an invalid of a person who is up and around. Pulling one’s weight is good exercise.

How the Family Copes

The needs of the family as a unit are important, too. Maintain normal living patterns within the family as well as possible. This is important for long-range as well as day-to-day coping. Sometimes, when the patient is in active treatment, family life becomes totally disrupted. If that happens, it is harder to resume functioning as a unit during periods of extended remission or permanent control.

“My worst emotional problem,” one patient said, “was finding that my improved health posed inconveniences and threw my family’s plans all out of line.”

Understanding such a situation might help prevent it. There are many ways we cope with fear, anxiety and the threat of loss or death. One way is to begin preparing ourselves for an event by thinking about it, without being aware that we are doing so, as if it had already happened. Thus, we “rehearse” life as it will be so that we can assume our new roles more easily when the time comes. People do this throughout their lives, although usually they are unaware of it. For example, teenagers spend increasing amounts of time with friends rather than with family, “rehearsing” for the time when they will go out on their own.

When a family member has cancer, you may be “rehearsing” the future in your own mind. You might begin to “practice” how the family will function if that person dies. Watch for signs that you are excluding the patient and turn the routine back toward normal if you are. Knowing that these things happen, however, try not to feel guilty if you find yourself emotionally out of step with remission or recovery.

The Years After

Cancer is not something anyone forgets. Anxieties remain as active treatment ceases and the waiting stage begins. A cold or a cramp may be cause for panic. As 6-month or annual checkups approach, you swing between hope and anxiety. As you wait for the mystical 5-year or 10-year point, you might feel more anxious rather than more secure.

These are feelings we all share. No one expects you to forget that you have had cancer or that it might recur. Each must seek individual ways of coping with the underlying insecurity of not knowing the true state of his or her health. The best prescription seems to lie in a combination of one part challenging responsibilities that command a full range of skills, a dose of activities that seek to fill the needs of others, and a generous dash of frivolity and laughter.

You still might have moments when you feel as if you live perched on the edge of a cliff. They will sneak up unbidden. But they will be fewer and farther between if you have filled your mind with thoughts other than cancer.

Cancer might rob you of that blissful ignorance that once led you to believe that tomorrow stretched forever. In exchange, you are granted the vision to see each today as precious, a gift to be used wisely and richly. No one can take that away.

Reprinted with permissions from the National Cancer Institute