Dealing positively with cancer
A daughter’s first-person account of what she and her family have learnt while helping her father cope with the disease
The word cancer is by far the most fatalistic word I’ve ever come across. The moment that word is associated with a living person, the atmosphere in the room changes. People’s expressions are overcome with pity, sympathy or false bravado. Someone will let out a cheerful slogan, “You’ll beat it”, while another will recap a survivor’s story. Some will enquire about the details of the disease, and others will manage to crack a joke. Cancer is like a bully, threatening to get back to you after every class. And, the patient must build strength to punch that bully in the face, until the class ends.
Cancer not just changes the way a patient looks at life, but also changes the gears, direction and speed of the family members’ lives. My father has been a cancer patient for the last four years. He has oral cancer, the treatment of which has involved chemotherapy and surgery as well. Throughout these years, he has shown remarkable grit and optimism, continuing with his job, travelling for official purposes, attending family weddings and funerals. However, as a family, sometimes, we have been unable to give him the right kind of support and space to fight this disease. Does giving “positive support” to a cancer patient mean constantly texting them to say you’re there for them? Or telling a patient everything will be fine? Being positive sounds like an all-encompassing formula to tackle this bully, but in reality what is needed is a step-by-step guide to retain positivity which helps the patient and family.
Through my experience of living with my father, watching him fight this disease, I’ll be summing up some lessons that make for an effective contribution from a family member.
Mantra No.1: Daily walks
This sounds simple and seems obvious, but the biggest pain that a cancer patient experiences is boredom. My dad’s more conscious of his ailment when he gets back from work, and has free time on his hands. It puts him back in the patient mode, and engulfs him with uncertainty. And this is where an evening walk becomes essential. As my dad wears his running shoes, and walks around the neighbourhood, he essentially enters healthy life mode again. Even if that lasts 15 minutes, it gives him room to think beyond the walls of his house, pushes him to work with a body, which is trying to work against him, and develop a cycle of physical training, which otherwise is absent. When he has a companion on the walk, it enables conversation which is by far the easiest way to distract a troubled mind.
Mantra No.2: Know the disease, know the medicine
A cancer patient feels more confident about a treatment if s/he understands what it is doing to his/her body. The main pathways to cancer treatment are surgery (aggressive or non-aggressive), radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Often, cancer drugs lead to side effects which doctors might not have predicted, and that leads to panic-stricken days and nights. But knowing and reading up about the drugs helps everyone stay calm.
Mantra No.3: Press brakes on the guilt trip
This one’s necessary. A cancer patient often lives with the incessant guilt of making lives of family members hard, of not being able to do enough, of financial problems, of losing opportunities. As a family member or friend, it is of utmost importance to put the brakes on this guilt trip. Tell the person that it is not their fault. My father often feels really guilty for making life difficult for mum and his children, but I’ve never felt that way and I make sure I let him know.
Mantra No.4: Build empathy within the family
My sister and I have countless arguments over what dad needs, at what time and who is right in assessing his condition. I come off as stubborn and irritating, because I don’t veer away from the given instructions, especially when it comes to medical care. My sister looks at alternatives and freeways. As a family, we need to overlook our personal limitations and respect that we have our own coping mechanisms to deal with my father’s health. That will help us focus on his recovery in an even better way.
Mantra No.5: Do the best you can
Acknowledge to yourself that you’re doing the best you can. Often, in times of crisis, there’s a constant blame game taking place. One way to end it is by telling yourself that you are doing as much as possible, and you will try to keep up. Letting go and moving on towards another day is the most positive feature you can derive from this turmoil. Think less and finish the tasks, your mind will quietly adjust to the buzz.
Mantra No.6: Be vulnerable around friends
A friend of my father’s came to visit him recently. They both warmly hugged each other and started chatting about the long journey and children. There was no discomfort, and talk about his illness came much later. What did I learn from this experience? Letting people in can strengthen your capacity to deal with the situation.
For almost two years, while I was at graduate school, I was too afraid to open in front of my friends and let them see the mess I was inside. I was scared that people knowing would mean looks of sympathy plus uncertainty and distrust in my abilities. I was wrong.
One day I spoke my heart out to a very good friend, Sarah. She gave me the warmest hug, told me that I was carrying too much weight in my head and heart. She understood me, held me, cried with me, and saw me for who I really was. I’ve since learnt that when dealing with a crisis like this, having trustworthy people around you matters a lot. You can ask for help, cry without the fear of being labelled, and perhaps even laugh more often.
Mantra No.7: Create memories
Recently, my father and I played Ludo. As I was packing up the game, he noticed a pack of cards lying in the box, and much to my surprise, he was keen to play a hand of Rummy. I had never played it previously, and as my father explained the game to me, I realized that I was actually creating a wonderful memory: of learning a card game.
When I look back on this time, I probably won’t remember that evening but every time I play cards, I’ll remember that my father taught me my first game of Rummy. I’m not letting this difficult time define us in a painful light; instead I see it as the longest time we have spent together as adults. These are the memories that I want to frame in my mind, and that’s what I am doing.
This article is an edited extract from the author’s series on finding positivity as her father fights through aggressive oral cancer, on her website Mariyamrazahaider.com.
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