Living with Cancer: A Family Affair

When we as a family heard the doctor pronounce the dread words “Your husband has lung cancer”, it was truly one of life’s defining moments. For it’s not just the patient who suffers, the whole family does. First there was the numbing shock of realizing my husband and father of our children has a very serious illness. This shock and sense of overwhelming fear can last for weeks. It is a family crisis of epic proportions.

Then came the terrible anger that showed in several ways. Our children acted out by tantrumming or being sullen and defiant during this intial period, or simply became clingy, seeking reassurance. HMO’s. who are notorious for treating people in pieces, instead of holistically, drove me nuts. I remember the huge rush of appointments, often up to 3 a day that my husband, ill as he is had to keep. Several of his referrals didn’t even know why he was there, or appear to particularly care. After the bronchoscopy/biopsy was done and the cancer confirmed, he was sent for a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan. Because this scan showed trailing into the adrenal gland on the opposite side, he was scheduled for a very high risk biopsy. Right there, in the middle of the hospital, I lost my temper and told them how inhumane and incompetent they were..

My poor husband was terrified of the risks and very angry at being treated like a piece of meat. With my encouragement, he spoke by phone with the HealthNet health coach, who listened to both of us and suggested something that helped us all calm down. She suggested he NOT have the biopsy under the conditions proposed, and to take a week or so to just relax and come to terms with things. Because his cancer is a large celled tumor, and slow growing, we did just that. And he asked his primary doctor to find him somewhere that offered a holistic approach to his disease.

Because we took that brief two week respite to just be together and talk, it helped us all come to terms with the shock and pain of it all. The boys had questions, and were angry that Daddy wouldn’t share with them what he was really feeling. We all sensed he was angry, grieving and scared, but he just would not talk about it. I could see him frightening himself to death by internalizing all that emotion. Finally one day, when they were outdoors playing, Dave shared his feelings for the first time, and I really listened to him. And after letting him know we were all on this journey together, I reminded him about the importance of communicating feelings with others. And that our boys needed extra hugs and reassurance from him, because they fear losing him.

Finally last week we were introduced to Dr. Fisher of the Sutter Cancer Center here in Sacramento. The whole Center is a friendly, welcoming and comfortable place to be. Dr. Fisher himself was someone Dave trusted instinctively. For others of us out there, I can’t stress enough how important who will be handling your case and where your treatment will be, is to not only the patient, but the entire family. We were reassured surgery would not be done unless they were certain they killed the cancer completely. Options were explained, and his case will be presented next week before a full board for discussion and treatment plans.

The family has access to free counselling and art therapy classes. Out of town relatives will stay free at the House, where they’ll have a private bedroom and bath, for as long as is needed. These supportive options are so important to the family of the cancer patient in terms of comfort and stress relief.

If you find that your health plan is treating you in a manner you feel uncomfortable with, or your referrals don’t seem to remember you’re a human being, call a halt, and take a bit of time to regroup and think about things. Try to clear up any outstanding business:taxes, filing for disability, pensions etc, during this down time. Talk to your primary doctor and tell him/her what you feel you need to gain successful treatment. Look up your cancer, investigate therapies, and clinical trials geared towards your particular tumor. The more knowledge you have, the better the chances are for finding a successful treatment.

Pump up your loved ones immune system. I got Dave to take a potent megavitamin, plus Ultra Mega Greens from GNC. Guess what? Within two weeks his color improved and he quickly regained lost weight. This is so important in preparing for whatever treatment lies ahead. We are eating differently, partially out of nerves and loss of appetite. For the time being small meals off and on all day long seem to work for us better. Once or twice a week I cook a family meal for dinner, which we all enjoy.

The main thing is love. We touch him, hug him and just generally let him know he’s loved. That often includes teasing him, when we see him start to treat himself too preciously. Laughter is a huge part of our family dynamics anyway, but now it’s a tool to keep him out of himself. We all know the future is uncertain, but we face each day now as it comes, and don’t dwell on what’s unknown. Whatever comes, we’ll face it together, one step at a time, and hopefully become closer and richer for having gone through it.

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