Lately I have been finding myself in the unique position of being asked for advice by people who have been recently diagnosed with or living with cancer as well as people who have a loved one diagnosed with cancer. I have had the experience of being both the caregiver to someone with cancer in 1990 as a person in my 20’s and also needed care when I was diagnosed with my own cancer in 2015. I was also a widow the week after I turned 30.
In 1990 my late husband was diagnosed with brain cancer, after he went blind. The tumor had shifted when be bent down to pick up a newspaper and severed his optic nerve. Going blind was the first real symptom that he had a brain tumor. It was an Astrocytoma grade 3 – the size of two golf balls. He was 30, I was 27. We were married 2 ½ years at this point. When you take the vows “in sickness and in health” – you’d better really mean it. People ask how I handled this situation, as a caregiver to someone with a serious and ultimately terminal illness. You will be surprised at what you have to do when you HAVE TO DO IT.
I was fortunate to have worked with a large company in New Jersey as a Market Research Analyst, where the people in my department were extremely compassionate and understanding. They all knew my late husband. We all socialized together. They were at parties at our house. His illness affected everyone in the department personally, as well. They let me do what I needed to do in terms of taking him for appointments and caring for him when he was too sick to be alone. Through this employer I also had great insurance coverage that took care of almost everything. I didn’t have to worry about medical bills but I did have to worry about keeping this job and supporting us on my salary. With this and his disability we were barely making it. This job was not around the corner – I had to drive down the turnpike back and forth an hour or more each way.
Ultimately on March 27th, 1993, my late husband passed away. He was being cared for during the last month of his life at a hospice facility in Hawthorne NY called Rosary Hill. This hospice is solely by nuns and by donation only. There is no charge for their services. We were lucky to be able to get him in there as it was impossible to manage him at home towards the end. What a beautiful organization. Many of the people from my department at work came to visit him in the hospice. They were all at the wake and funeral.
I cannot tell you how having that support at that time helped me get through the situation. It is important to have support – in whatever way that can be for you. We both had small families and so we had to look elsewhere for some of that support. We simply didn’t have many family members near us to help. His mother was always available though and helped tremendously in every way. She was amazing and did everything possible to help him, and me. It wasn’t easy to watch her son go through this illness but she did whatever she could to make our lives easier. She was a young widow herself….
I found other support through friends, support groups, a therapist, and then through a church I had joined. You can’t go through something like this alone. You can’t. It’s too much. Even with the most possible support – watching a loved one go through a terminal illness will rip your soul to pieces. Reach out – There are others who care – who want to help. If you have family or friends – they are grieving for this person too. Be there for each other. And if you know someone caring for a loved one who is ill – ask how you can be there for them.
Sometimes things just suck. Bad things happen in life for seemingly no reason. I couldn’t believe I was newly married to someone where I thought I would we were at the beginning of an exciting future together and then his illness happened and ultimately took his life in a cruel way. I still look back and say “Did that really happen”? It’s OK to be angry, sad, depressed, scared, lonely. Feel what you feel and don’t keep it inside. HAVING THESE EMOTIONS IS NORMAL. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling and get it out. If you can work with a therapist I highly recommend it. In addition to therapy, they may also have information on other resources that could be helpful.
You may also want to talk to a clergy member of your choice. People in the medical community/hospitals that are helping in the care of your loved one can also be resources, or know of them.
Take care of you. As a caregiver, you need breaks too. Your life is devoted to taking care of someone else and is often difficult to experience. You need to take breaks and get away to do some things for yourself. To recharge. To not burn out. To stay as healthy as you can. Ask others to help you do this so you can get away from time to time. You have to take care of yourself the best you can during this time – physically and mentally. DO NOT FEEL GUILTY ABOUT THIS.
Do your best to help your loved one, in whatever way that is. That’s all anyone can ask. I promise you – if you do your best – you will not regret it.