Imagine getting a call from your brother and hearing a quivering voice on the other end struggling through tears to tell you his cancer is continuing to grow despite the chemotherapy. Imagine hearing him, once optimistic about his treatment, now confronting depressing life-expectancy statistics.
Fifteen months ago, I put my sister, Sarah, in this predicament when I called to tell her that I was in the unlucky 10 percent of Hodgkin’s patients who have a particularly resilient variation of the disease. Unfortunately, given the prevalence of cancer in our world, too many of us will face a similar situation at some point in our lives. The question that my sister and too many others face is, how do you help?
Grateful to have had an army of support over the roller-coaster ride of the last 19 months, I can testify to the types of support that have been most effective from a patient’s perspective. Perhaps it was my sister’s background as a psychologist or her experience in confronting her own adversity, but her efficacy in helping me through my journey is something I believe can serve as a blueprint for others seeking to support their loved ones.
Identify the facts of the diagnosis and understand the prognosis. Consider the personality of your loved one: How are they processing their illness and the road the lies ahead?
Up until this crushing PET scan, I was optimistic because my prognosis was great: 90 percent of patients are cured from Hodgkin’s lymphoma after eight rounds of the ABVD regimen. Recognizing my positive outlook, my sister was right alongside me, encouraging my determination to return to school and retain some normalcy of being a student. When things went south, however, the fact of the matter was that my chances of survival had decreased tremendously. The next year of my life was going to be hard, and there was no way around it. This brings me to my next tip.
Acknowledge the reality of the situation. Don’t try to make someone see something in a positive light unless they’re ready for it.
When I called Sarah in tears about my PET scan results, she listened and cried. I was broken and I needed a shoulder to cry on. Although I would eventually learn to cope with my illness and shape my experience in a constructive way, this took months. We all manage adversity differently, and allowing your loved one to process their feelings on their own timeline is critical. So how can you help?
Show them you care about them — and probably not through Facebook messenger.
I can’t tell you how good it felt to receive a handwritten card, a pair of socks from a nurse or a collection of absurd videos from family and friends. As patients, we don’t expect anyone to wave a magic wand and make everything better, but we want to know others are thinking about us.
Help them bring their own personality to treatment.
For me and many other patients, the worst part about treatment is surrendering our individualism. Stepping into my hospital gown and non-slip socks for my fifth in-patient hospital stay in three months, I felt my neck tense as a shiver passed down my spine into my cold feet. For me, those beige lifeless socks embodied the essence of my hospital experience: They represented the chemotherapy that would tear my body apart and perhaps worst of all, they represented foregoing everything that mattered to me in life to be cooped up in a sterile hospital environment. Give the patient in your life something to remind them of who they are and who they can be despite what stands in their way.