Asking for Help During Breast Cancer Treatment

Recently, I received a letter from Brenda in North Carolina.  Brenda recently completed chemo, had a double mastectomy less than three weeks ago, and is ready to begin radiation.  She hired a cleaning woman to help her clean because her husband isn’t a detail kind of guy.  Brenda felt guilty she had to hire someone to clean, but had to give in because she was not capable!

Her words made me ponder this.  Why is it so difficult for us to admit we need help even at the most difficult time in our lives, and when we do, we still feel guilty!?!   Most women tell me they lose their “cleaning desire” after cancer because they realize it just isn’t that important, so I told Brenda “Enjoy every moment of that AHHH feeling you get when someone else cleans your home!”

bucketandmopBrenda isn’t the first woman who has written me about those issues.  Many women have written me after cancer treatment ends and tell me that they wish they would not have been so proud during cancer treatment.  They wished they would have asked and received more help when friends and family offered.

Absolutely the toughest lesson I had to learn during treatment was asking for help.  It was not easy, but often I had no choice.    My sister had been telling me for months, “Let me come and clean your house.”   Finally, I had to say yes.  Even then, I helped her.  It made me feel more capable because I had her help and assistance.  I remember that day with so much fondness.  It meant so much to me.

grocerycartMy friend, Judy, called and offered to pick up groceries or take me to the grocery store every week.  I had no choice to take her up on her offers on several occasions.   It was so difficult to say yes, I need help. But I will never forget her kindnesses.

One non-profit organization, Cleaning for a Reason   http://www.cleaningforareason.org takes applications from breast cancer patients who need help cleaning their homes.  I have heard good reports about this organization who provides services in the United States and Canada.

Never will I forget some words my Oncologist spoke to me after my before my first chemo treatment.  He said, “Now is not the time to be a heroine.  There will be plenty of time for that once treatment ends.  Now is the time to ask for help.”

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons of Cancer. . .Live the Miracle, Be the Miracle

Every year for many years, four high school friends and I go on vacation together.  Some of us have known each other since kindergarten!  We feel like teenagers again for a brief week remembering our carefree days!  This year we spent our time in the picturesque Upper Peninsula of Michigan driving along the shores of majestic Lake Superior, touring lighthouses with fascinating histories, and viewing gorgeous waterfalls.  Then we ventured to Mackinac Island, home of the legendary Grand Hotel.  Horse carriages and bicycles are the mode of transportation on the historic island.    They are amazing places to visit.  It is like living in an impressionist painting while you are there, but all too soon, it is time to emerge.

Traveling in two separate cars returning from Upper Michigan, three of the gals were in one car as they were going to drop off one of our friends in the Metro Detroit area.  They got a late start from the Upper Peninsula, stopped for lunch, made a wrong turn, got into traffic jams during rush hour in Detroit, and finally got our friend home south of the city.  Then the remaining two friends made a last-minute decision to stop for gasoline before getting back on the interstate.

As they were fueling at the very busy BP gas station in a suburban neighborhood, Linda noticed a young man lying on the ground next to his work truck.  Another young man was putting cold water on him attempting to revive him.  No one else was paying attention but going about their business getting gas.  If anyone else noticed him, they ignored him.

Cathy, the other gal, ran over to see what she could do to help.  Seeing the young man probably in his 20s on the hard concrete floating in and out of consciousness, she asked his co-worker if he was diabetic.  Cathy’s husband has blood sugar issues and that was the first thought that came to her mind.  The co-worker responded that he  was, but he did not know what to do.

Immediately, Cathy ran into the gas station to tell the attendant to call 9-1-1.   The young woman behind the counter handed Cathy the phone as she didn’t want to be involved.  Cathy reached 9-1-1 and another customer in the store helped her tell the Operator of gas station location.  Since this customer had helped Cathy during the conversation with the 9-1-1 Operator, he went and got orange juice to assist Cathy.  The young attendant made him pay for the orange juice before they could take it out of the gas station’s store!

My friend, Linda, was out of her car by this time.  She held the young man up from the ground and put a rolled sweatshirt under his back so he would not choke as Cathy started getting orange juice into him by drop fulls with a straw.  Cathy and Linda were operating from instinct as they had no medical training other than CPR.   But they said they knew they had to do something to try to keep him alive.  Cathy said once she used the straw method on a pet, so thought it was worth a try.    After a few drop fulls, the young man started licking the orange juice and responding a little, starting to swallow and opened his eyes.  By this time a crowd was gathering with onlookers as my two friends were willing this young man back to consciousness and preventing convulsions.

Finally, the paramedics arrived and took over.  The paramedics determined that the young man’s blood sugar had been down to such low levels that in a short time, left unattended, he most likely would have died.   My friends waited until he was conscious and responding.

I already knew these women were heroines.  They were on the front lines when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and remained there for the duration. Within one week they arranged a luncheon for me, showered me with love and gifts, and promised me they would be there for me.  And they were!  ( Linda was the person who sent me the greeting card every week for a year!)   These two women along with many other friends and family  jumped into action and did not stand on the sidelines watching.

I receive so many letters from people who were abandoned by friends and family members during cancer.  It is difficult for them to get over the pain.  One woman told me her friend’s abandonment was worse than her cancer diagnosis.  Many divorces happen after a cancer diagnosis and many other relationships end.  So often cancer survivors struggle with people who now want back into their lives once they are feeling better.

My question to them is this:  ” Before cancer, did you do the majority of the giving in the relationship? ”   One hundred percent of the time, the answer is yes.

The people who run away from cancer patients are like those that saw the young man on the ground.  They had the potential to help this young man live, but they did nothing.  If asked why they didn’t help, many would have excuses like, “I  didn’t know what to do”, “I was giving him his space”, and “I thought about helping, but. . .”

If you are a cancer patient or survivor, you can relate to the young man on the ground.  You felt like your life was slipping away and each act of love and kindness was like that dribble of orange juice into your mouth — just enough support to help you keep fighting.

If you have not had to endure cancer, perhaps it is time for a relationship review.   In your soul, you know the relationships that are not healthy in your life.  Who would let you lie on the ground and only watch, and who would rush to your aid?

Lessons of Chemotherapy One Year Later

Tomorrow I celebrate my first anniversary of my last Chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.   I planted flowers to celebrate as I was unable to plant last year.  As I pondered  this cancerversary in the garden, I realized these Lessons of Chemotherapy remain with me each day.

If you are in the midst of Chemotherapy or active cancer treatment, take time to learn your lessons through the pain and suffering.  They will be valuable gifts to you in the future.  And if you have never been a cancer patient, I hope my lessons can be helpful to you.

1)  You only have so much energy in a day.  Use it wisely.  Plan things that take a lot of energy during your peak energy times of the day and  week.

2) Learn to listen to your body and respect what it needs – exercise, healthy foods, and nourishment from other sources.  Say no to things that do not nurture you or bring you life.  Just ask this simple question:  “Does this help me or harm me?”   Never hesitate to say no to things that harm you.

3)  If anything is not serving you well, people, places or things, begin removing it from your life.  It is a process, but make the first step.  The first steps are difficult, the remaining steps are easier.

4)  Make time for what is important to you and make sure you know what is!

5)  Appreciate all of life each and every day and give thanks.  And when those rough times come, I always say to myself,

“It’s better than Chemo!”

6)  Make plans for the future and dream big.  Picture yourself living life in these dreams!

7) Listen to the still, small voice of God.  He has a purpose for this second chance at life.

8) If you do not have 100% confidence in your doctor, medical facility, or medical staff, find another.  We often spend more time shopping for a new piece of clothing than finding the right fit in a medical professional.  Your life is in their hands.  Make sure you trust them with it!

9) Pray for those who supported you during treatment and return their love and friendship.  Their faithfulness helped you survive and continue to thrive!  Be grateful and show your appreciation.

10)  Begin to forgive those who abandoned you or never went out of their way for you during cancer treatment.  Learn how to be friendly yet keep your boundaries in place when and if your paths must cross.  They have proven themselves not to be friends.  Let them go in peace and remember with love the valuable lessons they taught you.

And check out my cute chemo caps at my store www.hellocourage.com  and other items.  Another lesson of Chemotherapy.  Have cute caps!   Or click on the cap!

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The Lessons of Cancer Continue…how much stuff do you need?

I am finding joy in putting into place the lessons I learned during one year of cancer treatment.  They are important lessons that I cherish and will write about.  Today I will focus on “STUFF”…

Number one is I don’t need so much stuff.  I’ve never been a hoarder, and it’s always been easy for me to give things away.  However, I still have many things I do not need.  So I have been busy giving them away.  Like how many Russian Nesting Dolls do I need that I collected back in the 1980s?  The answer is none!   I do care about my grandmother’s dishes and keepsakes, and a few treasures from my late father.  I also care about the treasured gifts that were given to me during cancer treatment by my amazing and wonderful family and friends.  Those things matter to me because I really know how much my friends cared about me and are a constant reminder of that love and compassion.   Clothing that I was holding onto that will be totally out of style for some unknown event is on its way out.   And Christmas decorations are another whole blog post!

I learned that the things I do need are really cozy pajamas, really comfortable socks, amazingly comfortable shoes,  clothing that makes me feel prettier, and healthy food.  Since I have to use all paraben free make-ups and non-estrogen causing soaps, I’ve really scaled down in that department.  Now I am using Dr. Bronner’s Castile organic soap both liquid and in bar form for my face, body, and use it periodically on my hair.  Now I use aloe for my face which I discovered while going through radiation.   Now all the rest of the hundreds of dollars of miracle cosmetics that really didn’t do a thing are headed out the door!

As for makeup, I am still trying to figure all of that out.  Some of the natural things haven’t proven to be that great.  I’m researching and see where it leads me!  In the meantime, I am using up what I had stocked up and what I received at the wonderful Look Good Feel Better (www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org)  seminar put on by the American Cancer Society for women undergoing cancer treatment.

Shampoos and hair care have gotten really easy.  So far I am using Aveda Shampure Shampoo and some kind of second-hand hair paste my niece, the hair stylist, gave me!  Gosh, I need that paste.  My post-chemo hair is about 2 inches long now and getting wilder by the day!  If you are old enough to remember Red Skelton and his hair, that about sums it up!  But boy am I grateful for it!  I was sharing some of my hair dilemmas with a valued friend.  She was giving me ideas.  But they were all too complicated for me, and she knew it!  We laughed about it.  Another lesson of cancer for me is that daily hair doesn’t have to be that complex and doesn’t need to have that much energy given to it!   When I think of how many times I let a “bad hair day” ruin my day is just ridiculous and petty, or so it seems to me right now.

Since quite a bit of my lingerie now comes from the medical supply house  (this makes me laugh or I may cry!), I find it important to have pretty lingerie for the items that don’t!  A lace camisole makes all the difference!

And then we come to one of my passions which are books.  I just have to let go of them.  This might be more of a sacrifice, but this winter I am determined to cut my book collection by at least half to three-quarters.

As for cleaning products, I need to be so careful about these and their toxins.  So I have it down to two cleaning items – apple cider vinegar and white vinegar.  Okay, I do sneak in a little Bar Keeper’s Friend on my stainless steel sink!  But I am ridding my household of the other toxic cleaners that don’t do that great of a job!

And in the food and vitamin department, well that is where it gets complicated.  If you start researching what keeps cancer at bay, you will be more than overwhelmed.  So far I am committed to real and expensive Pomegranate Juice, walnuts and parsley.  There is real research on these foods with Her2Neu Positive Breast Cancer.  I’ll write an entire blog post about this at a future date!

One thing I do know, I cannot go back to my old ways.  It won’t work for me any longer.  So I rejoice about the new path and appreciate the lessons along the way!

Caregivers of Breast Cancer Patients

I have gotten so many emails from caregivers of breast cancer patients – from daughters, spouses, partners, and friends.  It is such a difficult and challenging job.  If you are a caregiver, I deep compassion for you because you feel so helpless and don’t know how to make your loved one feel better.  And the ages of their patients have ranged from in their 30s to in their 80s which obviously makes a huge difference.

I’m single and my mom was my caregiver.  I don’t know what I would have done without her.   She cooked me pancakes, made me banana cake, and mashed potatoes made with cottage cheese.  Not the best diet, but it was all I could eat and craved during A/C Chemo!    It was good just knowing she was there if I needed anything.  That was the greatest gift she gave me – her presence.  So often there was really nothing she could do for me.  And because of steroids, I probably got a little testy with her to say the least.

That is the greatest gift you can give to any cancer patient.  Just being there for them.  It sounds so simple, but so much of the process just has to be endured by the patient.  It is tempting to try and push them to do more than they are capable of doing because you so desperately want to see them well.   They will get there.  It just takes so much time.

My best advice would be this:

1)  Don’t try to make them eat things they don’t want to eat.  Do attempt to add protein in creative ways to things they might want.  Example – the cottage cheese blended into pancakes or potatoes or noodle dishes, peanut butter into anything, and whatever other ideas you can create!  I could not tolerate any meat, but your patient may be different.

2)  The steroids change their moods dramatically.  For me, it was like I was living in someone else’s body and emotions.  Try to be as understanding as possible which is tough.  And realize that the mood swings are the drugs talking.

3)  If they are in the middle of A/C Chemo, don’t let them go to the grocery store alone.  It is so hard to go to the grocery store.  They may feel up to going, but once they get in there, it might be overwhelming because of the smells and the stamina it takes to do so.  One lady wrote and said her mom felt like going but passed out in the checkout line because her blood sugar dropped.   Once they switch to Taxol or another chemo drug, they will be able to go alone.

4)  Make sure they are getting enough fluids, especially the day before Chemo, the day of Chemo, and the day after Chemo.  Drink, drink, drink that water.  It helps the way you feel.

5)  If you accompany them to Chemo, try to let go of the patient.  During Chemo, the nurses are in control and will usually take care of the patient’s every need.  This would be a great time for you to get a little break and go to the cafeteria, leave and go get a cup of coffee, or do something for you, the Caregiver, while they are being taken care of by Chemo Nurses.  If you feel comfortable enough, leave and go shopping.  I really enjoyed being alone during infusion time as it gave me a chance to talk with other patients, the nurses, and the staff.

6)  A few tips no one may have told you about A/C Chemo –

a)  Patient may have minor but frequent nose bleeds – get them any kind of saline nose spray.  It really helps!

b)  Patient may have rectal bleeding from hemorrhoids – rectal wipes and cream really help.

c)  Make sure they take the anti-nausea meds at the FIRST sign of even a tiny bit of nausea.  You don’t want to wait until it is full-blown nausea.

d)  Let them call the shots about what they can and cannot do.  I had to get out of the house on my good days, but didn’t want to get germs because it was cold and flu season.  So I would just get in the car and drive to get out of the house.  It really helped to make my isolation  more tolerable.

And give yourself some much-needed breaks.  If you are afraid to leave, arrange to have someone come in and stay with them (especially if the patient is elderly).  It is a really challenging and difficult job to be around a chemo patient all the time.  You need a break!  Take it!

The Positive Things about Breast Cancer

I received a touching note from a woman whose 33 year old sister was just diagnosed with Breast Cancer.  She was having difficulty finding positives about Breast Cancer to pass along to her sister until she got to my Blog and was able to find a few.  This woman gave me inspiration to think about the past year in positives.  I am in the midst of  all of my one-year anniversaries of tests and diagnosis – September 25, October 3, October 10, October 17th – cancerversaries as they are called.   Looking back over the past year, these are some very positive things I have learned:

1)  Discovering the fragility of my own life.  This has been a great gift to me because it makes me rethink everything I believed in from family, friends, God and how I live and have lived my life.

2)  Family and friends are amazing and their love shines through.  In some ways it is like one year of being able to attend your own funeral to see what is said about you, how it is said, and what your friends and family truly think about you!   Words escape me to describe the outpouring of love and friendship I have had.  You definitely learn who your friends are which is such a great gift!

3)  The medical profession is full of compassionate, amazing and incredible people.  My medical exposure was very limited as I had always been healthy up until Breast Cancer.  The passion and care I have had from my Oncologist, Nurse Practitioners, Surgeons, Chemo Nurses, Office Staff, Cardiologists and others have overwhelmed me.  Where do they get that kind of love, compassion and dedication?  It certainly helped heal me!

4) Losing your breast, your hair, your coloring, your eyebrows and eyelashes makes you dig really deep as a woman.  It is a tremendous gift to realize how superficial our culture is about beauty and women.  Beauty definitely does come from the inside.  Breast Cancer allows that inner beauty to shine forth.  I won’t say that part isn’t about one of the hardest things you go through, however, once you start to recover you have an amazing gift to see beauty in yourself and beauty in others in a completely new way.

5)  With suffering comes wisdom.  I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating.  In the past one year, I have gained more wisdom about life, love, health, God, relationships than I had in years and years of living.  You cannot put a price on the wisdom you gain from Breast Cancer.

6)  You definitely learn to toughen up through medical tests and procedures. Before Breast Cancer, I had an anxiety attack to have a blood test.  Now someone will be explaining some new test I have to have done and it is like “whatever!”

7)  Every day I open my eyes and am grateful for life.  I know I didn’t do that before as I took so much for granted.  Now I don’t.

8)  I now know my life matters and makes a difference to those around me.  Somehow I always hoped that was true, but now I know for sure!

9)  The weather doesn’t matter so much!  I used to let the weather dictate my moods.  Think how much power I gave away because of a little rain, heat or cold!  I have a deeper ability to see beauty no matter what the weather!

10)  Clarity is the greatest gift I received through Breast Cancer.  No matter what the situation, there is definitely more clarity.  You immediately know what is important and what is not.

If you are in the midst of Breast Cancer treatments, be encouraged.  It does get better.  You will smile again and you will feel hopeful!

When Friends Disappear during Cancer Treatment

 

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One woman who reads my Blog wrote me about her long-time friends who frequently stayed as guests at her cottage on the East Coast free of charge.   When she was diagnosed with cancer, these friends never contacted her to offer their help or support in any way.   Eight months had elapsed through her Mastectomy, Chemo and Radiation and total silence on their part.  She was so angry at these friends, wanted to share her pain and ask my opinion.  I told her I had no solutions, but understand this to be the experience of most cancer patients as I have seen thousands of posts on this topic.

As a follow up, I wrote her again to inquire what happened with her “friends.”   She said as soon as she completed treatment, they contacted her and indicated they were ready to go to her cottage with her and her husband, never mentioning what she had just been through.  Basically, she told them what she thought about fair-weather friends and let them know they would never be staying with her again.   She said she experienced much freedom emotionally after this conversation.

I’ve been trying to figure this out since my cancer diagnosis.  Why do some friends step forward and help you immediately in loving, kind and supportive ways, and other friends disappear never to return until you (1) are through cancer treatment and live or (2) until they run into you and have to face you.  This has been extremely perplexing to me.

Two of the top searches on my Blog consistently are:

1)  What to Say to a Cancer patient

2)  When friends abandon you during cancer

So the first group is wondering what to say to their cancer patient friend, and the second group is feeling totally abandoned.  They both care enough to search the internet for answers.

This all has been beyond me until I discovered an extremely interesting article in The New York Times entitled “Coping with Crises Close to Someone Else’s Heart.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/health/views/17essa.html?_r=2&ref=health&pagewanted=all

It is a fascinating article which explains that the people who abandon you are terrified that they will attract trauma into their own lives and are desperately afraid to be close to your trauma.  Of course it explains it in much more psychological depth, so I suggest reading the article!

When I examined my wonderful friends and family members who have supported me in unbelievable and consistent ways, I realize that all of them have been through traumas in their own lives.  They are not afraid of trauma.  They have gone through their trials, learned their lessons, and have become stronger and more balanced individuals as a result of them.

People who abandon others either have had no traumas or had traumas, but always ran away from them either by not facing them, running to their addictions, or by putting a happy face sticker over the trauma and never dealing with the psychological or emotional issues.

This article brought me a little peace and a little understanding.  But I am still working through my anger.   UPDATE:    I am now one year post treatment.  I have cleaned out my friend’s closet.  Those who abandoned me are not part of my life now.  If I see them or our paths cross, I am polite.