Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What if Cancer Comes Back?

So much of the cancer caregiver’s role is naturally about caring for their loved one. And so, of course, there is a great deal of worry about that person. But this week a conversation with a friend brought me up short.

I was asking about her husband who has cancer and we talked about the usual—treatments and surgeries and money and family—all the parts of life that are touched by cancer. But then she said, “There’s something else”, and she looked very uncomfortable. So I waited and she said, “I’m worried about me.”

“We’re both worried that his cancer is going to come back”, she went on, “and we can talk about that, but what I can’t tell him is that I’m not sure I can do this again.”

Oh! I thought, “Oh!”

All of this talk about being a caregiver and dealing with cancer and talking about sex, and I was missing what cancer caregivers might most need to talk about: the scary shame of hating cancer, and the painful, often secret truth, that we do not want to do this again.

Part of it is that the caregiver is in a secondary role: The patient is the lead and the caregiver is the supporting actor. But also we get caught in our own “saint” game and can get trapped by being helpful and loving and we fall head over ass into the expectation that we will: roll with the punches; go with the flow; do whatever it takes, but then, when after the first round of cancer we might think (most often to ourselves) “I do not think I can do this again.” 

Part of it is the timing and the dynamic. When cancer comes the first time we really don’t know a dam thing. We read pamphlets and go to support groups but we are caught up in the rapid current of cancer and treatment. We mostly just do everything because there isn’t time not to. The pace of care and the newness and the scariness and the constant adrenaline pushes us along. 

But after a period of time, maybe a year off, a kind of subtle terror creeps in: What if cancer comes back? Then what? Now I know, now I have a sense of this nastiness and exhaustion and fear, and in a way it’s harder because the adrenaline of shock isn’t there to help us. And because there is less help around us when cancer goes from crisis to chronic.

So I got to tell my friend that she is not alone and that I have been there and truthfully, can still go there: “Can I do it again?” I would most likely—our culture has no place for people who run out on cancer—but having that secret or that shame just makes it all so much harder.

No, I don’t want cancer to come back—for his sake and for mine. And I want all of us to be able to admit that. Like the motto of the Amy Winehouse House says, “Fuck Cancer.”

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