When You Love Someone With Cancer

When You Love Someone With Cancer

Guest blogger – Jana Nelson

Pedicures, vacuum cleaners and other gestures of love

Taking care of care givers


Don’t get me wrong, having cancer sucks.  And while I have not been diagnosed with cancer, I feel a bit like a survivor – because I have intimately loved people with cancer. I’m at four but considering the broken world we live in, I don’t expect I’ve reached my limit.

My grandfather had cancer in his eighties. He was diagnosed, thumbed his nose at most medical advice and lived another decade.  God bless him!

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in college.  It was scary but a bit far away.  By the time I found out about it, a plan was already in place.  Mom bravely chose to have a mastectomy, opted out of radiation and reconstruction, spent the next five years taking Tamoxifen and committed herself to healthy, intentional living.  She handled it so easily and gracefully that after my initial fears were relieved, I never really associated my mom with cancer.  Fast forward 20+ healthy, happy years, when a series of unusual symptoms found my mom in the emergency room. What we first thought might be blood pressure problems turned into a discovery of advanced cancer in her lungs and brain.  15 months later after giving it all she had, she gracefully exited this world in the arms of her Savior, leaving a permanent hole in my heart.

Six months after my mom’s death, a tumor was found in my dad’s sinuses.  I’ll be honest. I had a few choice words for God at that point. But after a successful surgery and seven weeks of radiation, my dad is cancer-free.

And then last month it was Bonnie.  I hate cancer.

I don’t pretend to know first-hand what cancer is like. What I know is cancer, once removed. I know what it feels like when the people you love the most receive news that rips your heart out.  And I know what it’s like to feel helpless.  I have juggled schedules and driven all over the countryside for countless appointments and procedures, shuffled young children hither and yon, rearranged bedrooms to house my beloved sick parents, ignored my very sympathetic husband and generally put life on hold while I loved someone who had cancer. I wouldn’t dream of trying to tell anyone what to do for a cancer patient. But I can tell you what was done for me – the person helping to care for their loved one with cancer.

You often hear people with cancer admit that it’s difficult to ask for help, awkward to be taken care of and uncomfortable to be the focus of so much attention.  If you are one of the care givers, receiving help feels worse.  With both my parents, but particularly during my mom’s long and difficult journey, I can tell you about the love that was lavished on me…and I wasn’t even the sick one.  I often felt like a fraud.  But with the clarity that comes from hindsight, and with humility and gratitude beyond words, I readily acknowledge that my friends carried me on their shoulders so that I could support my mom.  Their extravagant care, that made me so uncomfortable, is one of the most precious gifts that God has given me in this life.

While every situation is different, my hope is that my story might prompt your creativity in supporting those that you love.  Because I was loved so well, I now know how to love others who are walking in my shoes. I am prepared to share from the abundances of riches I received.

Here are a few things I learned:

SICKNESS IS EXPENSIVE – Half of my mom’s care was with me in Dallas and half near her home, a four-hour drive for me.  I’m a stay-at-home mom and my sweet husband carries the financial burden for our family.   A friend gave me a $500 Visa card to cover gas and travel expenses. And often hugs and handshakes included cash.

MOMMY GUILT IS ON OVERDRIVE – I have two young children. At the time of Mom’s diagnosis they were in Kindergarten and 1st grade. I worried constantly about all the shuffling, travelling and just plain lack of energy I had to give them.  Countless friends babysat, did car pool pick up for me and just generally filled in the gap for us. Family friends even included my two children on their annual trip to the State Fair of Texas, a brilliant memory for them that they still talk about.

SERIOUSLY, I HAVE TO COOK?! I am not a natural whiz in the kitchen. I blame my mother.  However when I was being pulled in every direction, I could not even fathom meal planning.  Yet, our family was fed for months. Despite my protests about not being the sick person, a calendar was created and meals arrived regularly. Restaurant gift cards were handed to us. Dinner invitation came regularly. It is embarrassing how well we ate during that season of our lives. 

THERE’S A STRANGER IN MY BED – Needless to say, my husband took on the lion’s share of managing our little household. I was meeting myself coming and going, away as much as I was home. But because he loved me and my mother, he held it all together and never complained about being ignored.  An anonymous gift of movie tickets and a restaurant gift card came at just the right time for a much-needed date night.

ARE MY ROOTS SHOWING? With everything going on, I had no time for myself and I even felt guilty thinking about superficial things while my mom was so sick. A friend whisked me off for a pedicure and then paid for it. We just sat and talked and it was heaven. I needed someone to remind me it was okay to indulge in a little luxury – living is what life is all about, after all.

LIVING IN A PIG STY – When you are going non-stop, cleaning your house is the last thing on anyone’s mind. More than once, friends showed up and just cleaned. And when my vacuum cleaner wouldn’t work, they went out and bought me a new one. I swallowed my pride, accepted their unbelievable gift of unconditional friendship and love.

If you love people, my best advice is to try and meet their physical needs. Don’t ask or they’ll tell you they’re fine. Obviously everyone has different boundaries so think about who your friends are and how you can best show them love.

My other tip is to remind care givers that they aren’t forgotten. I received cards, emails and texts that carried me though my exhaustion some days.   When mom was sick, it didn’t seem fair that life went on as usual for everyone else.  Just knowing that Mom and I weren’t forgotten was golden to me.

My prayer and expectation with cancer is always restoration and remission.  I’m so grateful that I’ve had that with my Dad and I fully anticipate a cancer-free life for Bonnie after this season has been completed. But sometimes the answer isn’t what we hope. In my case, God’s plan was for my mom to be healed…just not here on this earth.  And when my heart was broken wide open and I was weary to the bone, my sweet friend Bonnie packed up her bag of healing, got in her car, drove five hours to be with my family to celebrate the amazing life of my mother.  She stayed in our home and she offered my family her very best –her gifts that met our physical and emotional needs with massage, acupuncture, chocolate and tissues. I’ve always loved her but those few days, I loved her just a little bit more.

My story is but one. My list doesn’t even scratch the surface. Each gift came just when God knew I needed it.  Each one was a blessing, a treasure. None surpassed another. They were all jewels, not just for me but for my husband and kids, and my mom – the one I had the privilege of helping.  Behind each gift was a friend, someone who actually spent time, initiative or money to do something for me.  For their tangible outpouring of love, I will before grateful.

So look around. See who needs you. Get on out there and love someone.

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