Me: “How did the surgery go?”
Doctor: “Your wife has cancer. She is in the recovery room, do you want to tell her or shall I do it?
Me: “I will tell her.”
I saw my beautiful wife, eyes closed like an angel, asleep in the recovery room at the hospital. We were exactly five minutes into her battle with cancer and already I had taken on the role as her caregiver.
I kissed her gently and as her big brown eyes opened she asked me how the surgery went. “Babe, you have breast cancer.” I didn’t sugar coat it and I am not going to lie it was a horrible thing to have to tell her. She looked up at me, shed a single tear and retorted “Really…” So began a roller coaster ride of emotion, stress, fear and uncertainty.
For anyone who has been thrust into the roll of caregiver here are six pearls of wisdom I learned that helped me survive what I can only describe as the greatest challenge of my life:
1. Educate yourself as quickly as possible.
When the doctor told me my wife had cancer it was extremely scary news to digest. The first thing I decided to do was to completely educate myself about her cancer.
There were many important decisions that we needed to make quickly and by educating myself immediately I felt like I was taking control of the situation. My wife was so shocked and distraught I knew the majority of the decisions regarding her care would have to come from me.
Knowledge is power. Without knowledge, fear can literally cripple the caregiver. We are not afforded the luxury of burying our heads in the sand.
2. No matter what, we must stay positive.
I think it is universally true that anyone diagnosed with cancer will at least initially be paralyzed by fear. I know my wife was so overwhelmed by the news all she could imagine was dying. I am generally a positive thinker, but this situation really tested me. The initial thoughts of death were very real and so strong.
I used prayer and meditation to keep a positive attitude. These are the crutches I used. If they are a part of your life already, I strongly recommend you practice them every day. If they are not a part of your life, I suggest appealing to a power greater than yourself for help.
We, as caregivers, must stay positive in our thinking, so that our loved one will feel safe. Even as my wife’s hair fell out and chemo and steroids ravaged her body I told her everyday how beautiful she was and how deeply I loved her.
3. Properly handling family and friends.
My wife and I have a loving extended family and many friends. One warning I must extend to the caregivers revolves around friends and family. A cataclysmic event like a cancer diagnosis will quickly polarize friends and family. Some will exceed your expectations and some will bitterly disappoint.
Remember, everyone deals with bad news differently and I suggest non-judgment as the best course of action. If for example, a family member or friend does not want to be a part of the battle, as shocking and upsetting as this reaction may be, we must harbor no resentment.
Some people just don’t know how to handle such a situation. It’s not their fault and no blame should be placed. If we blame and resent we lose sight of our role and our loved one will suffer as a result.
4. What do I tell the children?
Children pose a unique problem. My wife and I have six children between the ages of 18 and 4. We chose to be truthful with our kids, even the little ones. Children can sense when something is wrong and we felt it best not to keep secrets from them. Instead, we educated them as best we could and had open and honest discussions with them every step of the way.
For example, before my wife’s beautiful long hair fell out, she cut it very short so that when it fell out from chemo the change would not be so drastic. We dyed her short hair crazy colors and the kids thought it was so fun and cool. I can tell you however, every day, I was challenged to make sure each child felt special.
As the caregiver, it was my responsibility to keep the family together and moving forward. My wife was dealing with her own demons and the chemo and radiation rendered her so tired most days she was bed ridden.
Carve out time for each of your kids and make sure you are diligent about keeping any promise you make to them. Their little lives were turned upside down by no fault of theirs and they need stability.
5. How to deal with doctors.
As you will quickly become aware, a person diagnosed with cancer will require a tremendous number of doctor visits. I personally believe it is necessary for the caregiver to attend as many of the appointments as possible.
At each appointment, chemo or radiation session, the doctors impart massive amounts of information. Trust me, your loved one will be numb to the information and it is imperative that either you or someone you trust attends each visit.
Remember, knowledge is power.
6. Take care of yourself.
The most important lesson I learned as my wife’s caregiver was to take care of myself, both mentally and physically. The stress associated with marshaling my wife through her struggle was at times overwhelming.
I was lucky enough to start my journey with some important tools already in place. For example, I am an avid yoga practitioner and relied heavily upon my practice to combat stress. Exercise is the best cure for stress. If you don’t practice yoga, find some form of exercise to keep yourself healthy.
Also, diet is an equally important tool in remaining mentally and physically strong. Fill your body with organic, healthy fuel and it will serve you well.
Make sure you set aside time for yourself. Trust me, you will need some alone time to re-boot every once in a while. I recommend setting out certain times during the week that belong to you only. This behavior might seem selfish but it is not. If you don’t keep yourself healthy and grounded you will fail in your role as caregiver.
If you don’t help yourself you most certainly will be of no use to your loved one. Explain this concept to them so they understand and don’t resent the fact that you are taking some time to re-charge your battery.
For those of you in a similar situation, please know that there is no way to control the final outcome of your loved one’s struggle. I have tried to give you some things I learned along my journey that helped me handle my caregiver role with as much grace as possible.
Cancer is an insidious disease that is in no way prejudice. Cancer affects all people without regard for their station in life. However, we chose how we individually deal with cancer. Approach each day from a place of love and awareness. We are not in control, and for most people that is a daunting proposition. Enjoy each day, and the more you throw yourself into your role as caregiver from a place of deep love you will be amazed at the result.
We, as caregivers, have been given the opportunity to serve others. When we accept this responsibility we learn many lessons about ourselves. My favorite lesson I learned is that the less I think about myself, and the more I think of other’s needs, the happier I am.
I’m proud to be a caregiver. It is an honor and a privilege. I thank God and the Universe for my chance to care for my wife.
So too should you.
The Wife’s Take: