After I got back from my last trip to NC, I got together with a friend whose mother was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.
She’s in what I told her is the hardest stage, where they know how bad it is but haven’t finalized a treatment plan yet. There are no words to really explain how that feels. When your world is in the process of imploding around you, and within you, and there’s nothing you can do. Yet.
Once a treatment plan is in place, there are things to focus on. Hurtles to overcome. Doctors appointments, lab results, chemo side effects. There are stages of treatment. You focus hard on reaching the end of the current one before even really thinking about the next one(s).
During this period, emotions are ruling. I’ve never felt that level of anxiety, grief, fear, and uncertainty ever, let alone all of them happening at once. Once treatment starts, it doesn’t all go away by any means, but there’s more for you to do, more ways to stay busy, answers to give to all the questions.
I came away from this lunch date drained. I was so happy I could be there for my friend who is embarking on this horrible journey, but it definitely brought everything back to the forefront for me as well. There were a couple of points we discussed that I discovered really helped me get through what was hopefully the worst stage of the process, but continues to help me every day as the ordeal continues.
As I processed everything that was happening to me, there were triggers that could incite crying and a lot of emotions. At first, that’s pretty much everything. In those first weeks, I would start crying and fighting a panic attack at everything.
Some of it’s obvious. The night I found out about my dad’s cancer was Stage IV, Caitlin and I watched Creed. Sexy Michael B. Jordan and boxing, what could go wrong. [SPOILER] Then I saw the signs of what the storyline was building to, and yup, Rocky gets cancer. And not just any ol’ cancer. But Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, the cancer my dad has. Woah, did not handle that well. We made sure to lighten it up afterwards by watching Ali Wong…
Some of it wasn’t so obvious. I, for whatever reason, fought the emotional attacks a lot while driving.
Time goes on and emotions level out. But there are still triggers that bring all that emotion and fear to the surface. Creed is still an amazing movie, but I definitely fast forward through the cancer section.
I love putting on How I Met Your Mother almost like a security blanket (I constantly am rotating screening through my favorite shows). The episodes when Marshall’s dad dies just came up in my recent series screening, and I automatically skipped them. Marshall’s pure devastation is absolutely heartbreaking. It immediately brings up all of that emotion in me.
Sometimes it’s not even cancer or death related. It can be a really beautiful, heartfelt moment. Recently at my friend’s wedding, I had to look away during the father-daughter dance. For whatever reason, during the first stages of everything, a fear that kept repeating itself in my head was that my dad won’t be there to walk me down the aisle. I recognize it’s a manifestation of the overall fear of my dad’s potential death (any I’m nowhere close to getting married), but it is difficult to witness those moments in others when I’m holding onto that relationship with everything I have!
Find an outlet
When I first was processing the diagnosis, I couldn’t handle doing yoga. It brought all of the roiling emotion to the surface and I couldn’t stop crying. I felt too volatile for yoga, even power vinyasa. I had emotions that yoga didn’t help me process like the way it normally does. Even running and backcountry skiing didn’t do the trick. I had so much anger. Though I did make sure I went out on the trail on the days my dad started his rounds of chemo.
Back when I played field hockey, I had an outlet for my aggression. There’s a kind of therapy in hitting something as hard as you can. So what better time to give boxing a try? I’ve started boxing at a local gym here in Portland with a badass chick who is a two-time World Champion and plays Britney Spears and Lady Gaga during our sessions in the ring. Best outlet for all of my anger and anxiety!
Open the lines of communication
I can’t stress this one enough.
At the beginning of this whole process, I was talking to mom separately on the phone one day. I was asking her how my dad was doing and how she was doing. I was afraid of her and them sugarcoating things to protect me. I flat out told her that in this fight, I’m not their daughter. I’m her partner.
I avoided looking anything up on the Internet. There are way too many scary things out there that have nothing to do with my dad’s situation. So I told my mom she had to be sure to tell me everything the doctors were saying because I wasn’t doing my own research separately.
My dad told me very plainly from the beginning that he didn’t want me to give up my life in Portland to move home. They’ve never been ones to guilt me into coming home for visits, or even phone calls. But he and my mom didn’t talk me out of coming home as much as I did. So I knew how much they wanted me there when they didn’t insist on me not coming.
It’s also important to have open communication not only with your loved one you want to support, but those in your life that want to support you. In my last “caregiver” post I talked mostly about being ok with not being ok with what’s going on, and how to navigate communication with your loved ones that want to support you. Don’t hesitate to tell people in your life what you need. Whether it’s, “Why haven’t you once asked me about my dad? I need you.” or, “Can we not talk about that right now? I appreciate you asking though.”
Keep calm and compartmentalize
What can be hardest when communicating with friends are those that have an experience they want to share with you. It’s natural, to want to share and communicate on common ground. Sometimes it was really challenging hearing things like, “If you ever need to talk, I lost my mom to cancer, so I know what it’s like to have a parent with cancer.” I tried to maintain my compassion, even as I wanted to scream, “WHY would you tell me about your parent dying from cancer when my dad is fighting it right now?!”
I remember the episode of Sex and the City when Carrie and her lover du jour Aleksandr had a big communication faux pas about Samantha’s breast cancer diagnosis. Carrie was wearing her positivity goggles a little too tightly and blew up at Alex when he brought up his friend who had died from the disease. I remember thinking Carrie was being a big B, but I now understand that she’s fighting to stay positive for her friend who is fighting this disease. (And is a little in denial.) But Alex losing his friend had just as valid of an experience. Once emotions had calmed, it was as simple as Alex putting on the positivity goggles with Carrie for Samantha and Carrie giving him her condolences for Alex’s friend.
I tried to remember this interaction when friends would tell me their experiences with cancer. They’re not trying to be hurtful. They’re trying to let me know they understand what I’m going through and that they’re there for me. Being able to reign in the explosions of emotion is a good skill. I also, regardless of the pain I’m going feeling, want to be always be someone that my friends feel like they can go to with their fears, stories, hurts, and memories. I’m now better able to calmly discuss experiences with friends, but at the time I just had to smile tightly and say thank you.
Sometimes the emotions literally do explode. Sometimes it’s impossible to compartmentalize them away into a little box you can deal with later. And that’s ok, that’s normal. The day I first found out about my dad’s cancer diagnosis, I had to teach yoga that evening and attend an event at the studio. I made it through teaching, albeit with maybe a little more subdued of a demeanor. On the way to Flex & Flow, I fought back a breakdown of emotion while driving. I had to excuse myself a couple of times during the bootcamp workout because I just couldn’t fight back the tears. We then went as a group to a local bar that has karaoke. What a horrible night for karaoke. It did help distract me off and on for a bit, but overall I was hardly in the festive mood. Jamie and Nicci knew something was up, but I hadn’t been able to tell them separately before the event, and it was definitely not something I was going to text them. But I tried to keep it together for my friends and my students.
It’s ok to smile
In the first weeks of diagnosis, a friend of mine told me not to feel guilty for smiling and laughing. I was too deep in the fog at the time to really register what she was saying, but it’s a real thing. How could I be laughing, taking smiling selfies, singing karaoke like everything is normal when everything is far from normal?? The reality is that it is reality. The only way to function is to compartmentalize. I had to put all of the fear, sadness, anger, grief off to the side in a little box in order to make it through my day. Of course it starts by just barely going through the motions. But little by little, I found some semblance of normalcy. And that includes laughing and smiling.
The breakdowns will happen. They still do. But not nearly with the frequency as in the beginning. I felt like I cried for days and anything could set me off. I felt like nothing would make me laugh or smile again. Let the emotion happen. It helps you process everything that’s going on. Once that wave has passed, set it off to the side to focus on other things.
Have an insider
One of my parents’ best friends lives right down the street from them. I’m able to call her to get an “unbiased” opinion on how they’re doing. Right after we heard the initial diagnosis, I called her. I asked her how they were really doing and if I should come home for Christmas, which was the next week. It’s relieving knowing I have someone I can turn to that’s close to the situation, that can be there with my parents, that can keep me informed, that can tell me they need something they won’t ask of me.
Do what you need to do
A parent isn’t generally going to want you to give up your life for him or her. As my dad insisted. As my friend’s mom insisted. I told her that that may be the case, that it really makes her mom happy to know that my friend is continuing to run, laugh, smile, work, live. But she, my friend, might need to go home and lay eyes on her mom for herself.
The most at ease I am during this whole situation is when I’m with my dad. When I can see him, watch movies, snuggle our pup, go for walks. When I can hug him.
So maybe you don’t go for a visit for your loved one. Maybe you do it for you.