Cancer, Self-Care, and Gratitude


AlicePopkorn / Foter / CC BY

I don’t like asking for help. It is a quality that I am afraid that I have passed along to my children. In all honesty it’s really less about asking for help that I don’t like, it’s the needing help altogether. Logically I know that it is natural to need help with things in life, both large and small. Emotionally however, I do not like to show weakness or need. I want to be able to take care of myself. My parents say that one of my favorite phrases as a child was, “Me do it!” I think that I’m still a “Me do it!” girl at heart.

When I received my cancer diagnosis four-plus years ago, I had to surrender to the idea that I was going to need help. I was going to need help for myself and I was going to need help for my family to do all of the things that I normally did for us that I would no longer be able to accomplish on my own. One of the greatest immediate challenges was being able to go for my daily radiation treatments. They would only be for a short while each morning, but I needed time to get to and from the hospital, to change into a hospital gown, and assume my contorted position on the machine to be shot full of targeted, cancer-blasting radiation. Asher was still an infant at the time and he was not invited to join me in the “mommy microwave” for my five weeks of daily treatments. I didn’t have anyone to help me with childcare. We had never had the resources for a sitter so I had nobody to call. We had used up a lot of our community goodwill less than a year prior when I had spent 166 days on bed rest trying to sustain Asher’s pregnancy. Rich worked from home a lot at that time when he wasn’t traveling for his job, but he was always on seemingly endless conference calls and otherwise working to support us. Managing the needs of a ten month-old while mama was getting zapped daily wasn’t going to be easy for him to take on during his work day. Additionally, we were concerned about the impact of our need for his time on his job security, especially so close on the heels of my extended bed rest stint. His employment was our only source of income and health insurance.

I tried to explore potential resources for child care: could the hospital provide a volunteer to meet me at the cancer center and just hang out with Asher in the waiting room while I spent my 15-20 minutes in treatment each morning? Were the hospital social workers aware of any social service agencies who could provide short-term child care to allow parents access to treatment? Was there any child care available on-site at the hospital? I explored every suggestion or lead. I even recall one conversation in which I was told that if I had breast cancer then there might be some resource available. My somewhat desperate response was, “Well, I have breasts, and I have cancer. Is there any way somebody could help hold my baby so that I can get radiation now?” It was new territory for me. I had gone from avoiding asking for help to begging for it, and I wasn’t getting very far.

I was never able to secure the childcare needed to make my radiation appointments. Instead I did my best to schedule treatments during Asher’s morning nap and Rich suspended work travel for the five weeks, working from home to help in a pinch if Asher woke up before I could scoot back. Despite my childcare assistance failing, I made a commitment that I was going to take advantage of the help that was available to me. I was going to pick up the phone and ask for what I needed, and sometimes I might get it. Specifically, I decided that during the course of my radiation treatments through my surgery date I would do at least one thing each week that would support my health and healing in a way that felt good both physically and spiritually since treatment did not feel good in either of those domains. I was acknowledging my physical and emotional vulnerability and trying to honor it.

Luckily for me, I lived within reasonably close proximity of two cancer support centers and there were additional support and wellness services offered through the hospital cancer center where I went for my daily radiation. Through these resources I was able to schedule no-cost appointments for a range of services such as massage, Reiki, Healing Touch, reflexology, and more. I really wasn’t picky. Anything that allowed me to feel nurtured or cared for helped to fortify my spirit and feel supported in my fight. In addition, these services were provided by volunteers, some of whom were cancer survivors themselves. In those difficult days of treatment when I was kissing my infant son goodbye and trying to imagine how long I could be a healthy and well mama to him and his sisters, it was very helpful for me to see and speak to survivors, especially long-term survivors.

I did a really good job of my once a week appointments through the course of my radiation and up until my surgery. Then my focus shifted to physical therapy, twice a week at first, and then once weekly for 8 months to address pain and help me regain my ability to stand, walk, and increase strength and range of motion to compensate for the quadriceps muscle that had been removed from my leg. Other family needs required my attention as well. Asher in particular needed a lot of support at the time. I had weaned him when I started treatments and quickly discovered significant problems around his ability to eat. In addition we were involved in follow-up care for a surgery that he had to address a birth defect. We were navigating the Early Intervention system, working through a lot of evaluations and home visits, scheduling therapies and trying to rally the support necessary to meet his nutrition needs. My self-care dropped off. I picked it up again later for a bit with a weekend “cancer yoga” class, but that too fell by the wayside when demands became great for me to work over the course of a year or two to renovate our home so that we could sell it and move to an area that would better meet the needs of our family. Our budget was strictly “DIY if at all possible” so I was burning the midnight oil and weekends laying flooring, sewing curtains, painting walls and ceilings, refinishing cabinetry, replacing light fixtures, combing home improvement resale shops, Craigslist, and thrift stores, and learning my way around impressive power tools that I borrowed from my father. In the triaging of our life, I moved myself down the list.

So remember back when I said that this blog is self-care for me? Well, it is in the sense that it allows me a creative outlet and keeps me in a conversation about my interests. It also lets me hear my own voice and evaluate what I am saying sometimes. I recently read myself writing “I may never get to that ‘someday’ list that I always put my own needs on. I keep saying that I will join a gym again or start attending yoga classes at the cancer wellness center again, or make time to spend with friends, but somehow months go by and it just doesn’t happen.” It didn’t sit well with me when I saw those words in black and white. It showed me that I am not having integrity with my commitments. I am committed to treating myself as important; to supporting my physical, mental, and emotional health to live a long life of wellness. I cannot take care of my children if I die an early death that I contribute to from my own neglect. I don’t want “Me do it!” attached to that outcome.

I called the cancer support center closest to where we are now living. I signed up for a weekly “cancer yoga” class. It is a uncomfortable for me. I have to work through the conversations about whether I deserve to be there (I’m not in treatment anymore and haven’t been for a long time); how do I fit in (I am always the youngest usually by decades, can I relate to these people? Can they relate to how cancer has impacted my life?); what am I not getting done while there (I should be getting groceries so that the kids have food for lunches. I need to figure out dinner for tonight. Do I need to skip out on the ending meditation to pick Asher up from school on time?, etc.) I’m doing it anyway though. I try to clear my mind. When thoughts of questioning or doubt creep in I try to picture all of the people who have donated time or money to cancer research and to cancer support agencies. They want me to be okay. They want me to live a long, healthy life and to be able to care for my children. I focus my energy and gratitude toward them. I receive their support. I honor their personal struggles and the loved ones who they may have lost to cancer; who may have inspired the generosity that allowed me to have this moment of nurturing. Lunches and dinner will work themselves out. Asher won’t be stranded at preschool. I am grateful for this day. I am grateful for this moment. I am grateful for this support. “We do it.”

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