Monday, 22 April 2013

The Ultimate Cancer Care Package

I hope you forget about this post. I hope you read it, enjoy it, and never refer to it again.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps. But unfortunately if you happen to find this article helpful and useful at all it means that you or someone in your life has thrown into the ring to battle against one of the most unforgiving opponents.

I am by no means stepping up as the ‘poster child’ for the Cancer journey. Nor can I attempt to speak for the millions of people who have been impacted through their own personal experiences. 
Everyone’s cancer experience is kind of like fingerprints – many similarities but ultimately everyone’s reactions are unique to themselves. If you want to support a loved one at any stage of their journey, there are a few things I’ve learned that I’m passing along in order to help you create the ultimate cancer care package.

  • Lip balm – hospitals and doctor’s offices seem to all be moisture-free zones to begin with. Throw in some chemotherapy, radiation or other treatments and you’re practically Sahara-bound!
  • Hand  & body moisturizer – same reasons as above. And gold stars to you if you get a large bottle for home and at least one travel size version to have on hand at all times.
  • Glaxol skin cream – if going through radiation, this cream is recommended to keep the skin hydrated and protected throughout the treatments. You can pick it up at your local drug store.
  • Deodorant – No, your friend won’t start to stink. Many deodorants contain aluminum, which can impact the radiation treatments (and probably isn’t all that good for you, anyway!) – so if you can find some ‘natural’ deodorant or at least an aluminum-free variety, they’re already ahead of the game.
  • Alcohol-free mouthwash – chemotherapy can be extremely drying and can leave you with that pasty dry-mouth feeling. Fabulous. Normal mouthwashes just aggravate this but the alcohol-free types seem to work much better.
  • Epsom salts – Sometimes a good soak in the tub just makes everything better – easing sore muscles, and allowing for a temporary escape from the reality of treatments. Adding in some Epsom salts helps add health benefits, including soothing the body, easing stress and drawing toxins from the body.
  • Hand sanitizer & wet wipes – germs are definitely not a cancer patient’s friend. Picking up any sort of virus or illness can result in prolonging the treatment – something no one wants, so the more things they can add to the germ-fighting arsenal, the better.
  • Money – you may not be able to ease their physical pain but you can help ease the financial pain with money that can be put towards parking, or even a two-week parking pass if you know he or she will be going every day (common for radiation treatments).
  • Pyjamas – odds are they will be spending a significant amount of time in bed, on the couch, or assuming other horizontal positions. A cozy pair of PJs or a nice comfy outfit to hang out in can help lift people’s spirits and keep them looking & feeling better – plus it’s great for greeting drop-in guests.
  • Gatorade or Vitamin Water – staying hydrated is so important – not just during treatments. Unfortunately, I found I wasn’t able to drink water during my treatments – not sure why, but I was sometimes able to sip some Vitamin water or Gatorade and that seemed to help.
  • Green tea – There are tons of health benefits to drinking green tea, and it is even believed to be helpful in preventing cancer. (Can I get a big ‘Yahoo’??) I’m no stranger to green tea but during my treatment I was lucky enough to have great friends who dropped off a green tea sampler package from David’s Tea – it felt great to be drinking something good for me, and having tons of options to be sure I found some that I liked. That and a pretty mug can make a big difference on an otherwise crummy day.
  • Kobo/Chapters/iTunes gift card – A thoughtful way to help people kill time during and between appointments – they can load up their iPods or eReaders, or have some great new books shipped to them. Anything to make waiting and waiting seem less exhausting.
  • Sour candies – A wonderful friend of mine introduced me to these during my treatments – specifically the Icebreakers Sour Orange variety – and for whatever reason, they were extremely helpful when it came to dealing with dry mouth issues, and was even somewhat helpful as an anti-nausea aid. No idea why but trust me, when you’re in the middle of it all, you’ll try anything!
  • Magazines – sometimes mindless entertainment is just what a person needs to take their mind off of everything.
  • Blanket – it can get darn cold sitting in those chemo rooms, so a nice light throw or afghan would definitely come in handy. Some hospitals give patients a quilt as part of the process, but I know for me, they forgot and I didn’t get mine until the end so extra blankets would have been great.
  • A cute tote bag – something bright, cheery and practical to carry around all of these handy things to their treatments – bonus points if you include a cute lunch bag to match. Chemo treatments can go on for hours so bringing lunch and snacks helps.

One thing I need to mention is when purchasing any of these items, always opt for the unscented varieties of products, where applicable. Many of the treatments can leave you very sensitive to various smells; plus, if you happen to be one of those people who are suffering through unending waves of nausea, the last thing you want is a strong smell to set things off again. Even if the smell isn’t particularly offensive, I found that there were certain smells that I now associate with my “treatment time”. I had to give away certain body washes, shampoos & soap because just one little sniff was enough to transport me back to a time I would rather not go back to.

So there you have it – it may not cover all the bases but it’s definitely a good starting point if you’re thinking of picking up a few items to support a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer. As I mentioned, everyone’s experience is different but I’ve had so many people ask me what they can do or what they can give to help someone through it, I’m hoping this is a good place to start.

Most importantly? Caring enough to read this article and wanting to do what you can to support someone through a difficult time means more than all of the lip balms in the world.

But trust me on the candy…

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

After the Happily Ever After

Once upon a time there was an evil disease that invaded a body and ravaged a family. In response, many of the local villagers banded together to defeat the evil disease and declare the body a safe and happy place once again. The disease was gone, the villagers cheered and everyone lived happily ever after.

Like most well-known fairy tales, people assume the story ends there. But did you ever wonder what happened after the happily ever after?

In some ways, my cancer journey was like a story – not necessarily a great bedtime-read, mind you, but there was a ‘good vs. evil’ plot, a battle, and a victorious finish.

I’ve learned, however, that the ‘happily ever after’ we were all working towards is not exactly as comforting as originally written. What if “after-cancer” is just as difficult as “having cancer”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely thrilled and that the surgery is done, the invasive treatments are done, the brutal symptoms and side effects are done – and now I’m happy, healthy and on the ‘winning’ side of this crazy battle. 

Here’s my problem – for someone that’s as Type A as myself, even though the cancer journey was absolutely horrible and I never want to go through it again, I was still able to find elements of comfort within it:

I could still work the disease and all things surrounding it into some sort of controlled schedule – my life and my calendar were full of various doctor’s appointments and treatment dates.
I came to know which days I would feel more like myself and which days I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.
I could still quarterback plans and playdates to keep my beautiful boy busy and distracted on the really tough days.
I was still able to prop myself up with my laptop and my cell phone and continue working on most days throughout the process.

In short, I was still able to “be me” and feel like I still had some element of control, even though I was in the midst of something that seemed to be beyond my control. I had a goal and a focus every day – concentrate on one day at a time, one treatment at a time, and appreciate how much closer to the end goal that brought us all to. I was surrounded by an amazing support network that continued to visit/call/email/bring meals/cheer on/check-in throughout the entire process, and I’m so fortunate to have had that. Doctors and nurses were checking in on me all the time and letting me know how I was doing, how the treatment was going, etc. Really, I was far too busy to ever be worried or wonder what life was going to be like after it all ended – the goal was just to get to the end.

Well, here we are at the infamous ‘end’. Hoping to be cancer-free and ‘back to normal’. Here at my own ‘happily ever after’. Yet now, more than ever, I find myself feeling scared, unsure and alone, with the question “What now” echoing loudly and drowning out many other thoughts in my head.

Now I’m learning that the post-cancer experience isn’t quite like they depict it in the movies. I didn’t get that chance to sit across from my doctor, anxiously awaiting the words “Congratulations – you’re cancer-free”. I pictured sitting there with my husband, letting tears of joy & relief stream down my face as we hugged and thanked her for all she had done for us. In reality, it felt more like a “good luck to you” send-off, complete with a “We don’t test to see if you have it anymore but let us know if you have any symptoms” finale. Really? After all we’ve been through, that’s it? Not even a high-five or a balloon?

Now I have time to truly process everything I’ve gone through. Previously I was far too busy & focused to be sad, scared, or introspective – now I’ve got nothing but time to field these thoughts and feelings that keep washing over me and figure out what the heck to do with them.

Now the daily ‘check-ins’ and support are less frequent (as they should be, of course!) which leave me feeling less distracted and, at times, more alone.

Now I’m mourning friendships and relationships that didn’t survive the bumpy road I found myself on.

Now I’m acutely aware of stories about people whose cancer continues to return – those who successfully battle it time & time again, and those who were sadly unable to claim victory once again.

Now I’m not working anymore and I desperately miss the routine, the outlet and the camaraderie that meant so much to me during these difficult months.

Now I’m learning that getting my body and my mind to get back into total alignment (or something close to it) is trickier than it looks. My mind says “We’re done, we’re healthy, we’ve spent far too much time in a horizontal position lately and we need to get back into shape!” My body, on the other hand, says “We don’t have the energy, we’re still reeling from the last year or so, we need to ease back into things.”

Now I feel like I’m supposed to have learned numerous life-lessons throughout this journey designed to “make a difference” or “ensure my life really matters” – a lot of pressure if you’re not sure how to do that.

Now I understand with every fibre of my being that life is short and can have its own agenda, despite all of our best-laid plans and preparations. It’s so incredibly hard not to be absolutely terrified about the prospect of not being there for those people who mean the most to me.

So there you have it – a lot of “what now’s” that you may not expect to run across when you begin your “once upon a time”. Does that mean I don’t believe in happy endings? Absolutely not – the most important “what now” I have taken away from all of this is that now I am extremely aware of all of the things in life that are beyond my control – but also that there are still things that I CAN control. I can control my reactions to what happens in life and I can choose to appreciate where life has taken me. Perhaps this story isn’t over after all – and now it’s time for me to figure out how that next chapter will go…

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Cancer doesn't discriminate

When I shared my “D-Day” (aka “Diagnosis Day”) details with my friends and family last year, the overriding response was “Why you?”. No one in my family has ever had cancer; I work out 2-3 times a week; I eat relatively healthy (hey, I even willingly ate kale!); and have never suffered more than a cold throughout my entire life. So admittedly, I was on the “Why me” train with the rest of them.

Here’s what the past year has taught me – why NOT me? Cancer doesn’t read the checklists. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if the “rules” show that you shouldn’t have it. It doesn’t care that you weren’t planning to get sick. It doesn’t care that you didn’t see this coming. It doesn’t care if you don’t feel strong enough to deal with it. It doesn’t care if you have a lifetime of plans and goals ahead of you still to achieve. It doesn’t care whether you’re young, old or somewhere in between. It doesn’t care if you have a loving partner or supportive friends & family that count on you. It doesn’t care if you have children at home who could not (and should not) have to imagine a life without you. It has its own agenda and truly couldn’t care less about yours.

So if these checklists don’t mean as much as we thought they did, we really only have two options. Continue to bemoan our fate and worry on what should or shouldn’t be… or make a new checklist. A checklist that allows us to take some of the power back and focus on the things that we CAN control. We fight for – and enjoy – every single minute we have.

We fight even harder knowing that there are things beyond our control.

We continue to build our bodies to be “un-cancer-friendly” environments.

We eat the foods that make cancer run in the opposite direction.

We work out to make sure our bodies are ready to fight off any intruder.

We go for regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments and we do self-exams on a regular basis.

We make sure our heads are not stuck in the sand somewhere and we arm ourselves with the knowledge that makes us powerful.

We listen to our bodies and appreciate them for all that they are and all that they give us.

We look around us and make sure we are surrounded by a positive, loving, support network.

We make sure to let this support network know how much they mean to us.

We recognize that every day is a gift and it is our choice every single day to decide whether to celebrate it or take it for granted.

We make a conscious effort not to ‘sweat the small stuff’ – compared to the thought of not being there for your family and loved ones, does anything else truly compare?

If cancer doesn’t read the checklists, then maybe it’s time to focus on a different list. Perhaps instead of focusing on the question of “Why me” we should simply focus our energies on “Me”…
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