18 October 2010

When someone you love has cancer: a list of things to do besides scream all day long

As I mentioned here, cancer is not new in my family, but it's never been quite this close to me before.  When my dad had his stroke, when I was 12, he went from the head of the family to needing almost total care overnight, and that's as close of a model as I have for this kind of crisis. And that model sucks, in general, but especially for this situation. My in-laws, Mary and David, are handling the day-to-day details of Mary's breast cancer and subsequent chemo on their own. We live only 90 miles away, but it feels like half a country some times. There is little enough we can do, really, to make a difference, except pray, which we're generally not into. So I've been working on how I can be a loving, helpful daughter-in-law and not get underfoot at the same time. Here's what I've been doing.

1. Sending cards. This one seems obvious, but I've been sending roughly a card a day. At first I bought cards, but that, as you can imagine, gets expensive. Plus the Get Well cards are too close to the Sympathy cards for my liking. So I've been making cards. I went to Michael's and got an 8 pack of pre-cut and folded cards for $1, glued in some of the fancy paper I had lying around the house, and wrote something funny. About 20 times. Well, they're not all funny, and sometimes I found quotes on the internet of hope or whatnot, but mostly I'm trying to brighten Mary's day, which is filled, often, with naps and worry and appointments and, in the last week, the loss of all her hair. Here are some of the themes addressed in the cards I've sent:
  • Beautiful bald people (Yul Brenner, Mary, Sigourney Weaver in Alien, etc...)
  • Good things about chemo (ice cream for breakfast and still lose weight! no need to shave your legs!)
  • Strength (you've done lots of things harder than this: been married for over 40 years, raised 3 crazy kids, taught in public schools, had me to put up with for 10 years, braved downtown Vegas...)
  • Quotes (In one card, I put the quote "If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come" on the outside, and on this inside I wrote "but he'll just shit all over everything, and who'll clean that up?")
I've also tried to remind my side of the family, who love Mary so much, to remember that she does like cards. They're actually pretty good about that stuff, but it helps to hear from me that they're important. Mail really does make a difference when, as Mary said "every day feels like a year right now."

2. Calling. This one can get a little tricky. It's so hard for me, because I talk to my family several times a day, but in Shaun's family it's not unusual to go weeks or more without any contact at all. With Mary having cancer, I've just decided that 72 hours is my absolute limit. For awhile after chemo started, I was calling everyday, just because I so wished I was there and could help, but I think it got a bit much (sorry, Dave). Every 2 or 3 days is good, too, because then we have new things to talk about.

3. Visiting. Even trickier than calling, it's hard for chemo patients to know how they'll feel in 2 hours, much less 2 days. For Mary, her main side effect seems to be exhaustion (and alopecia. isn't that a pretty word?). I would like to drive out and see her everyday, and bring her cookies and tell her knock knock jokes, but that is neither practical nor especially helpful. In the past, before cancer, we almost always stayed 2 nights or more at the lake. It's a 90 minute drive each way, and there's room for almost everyone in the family to stay over at any given time. But just because we can stay over doesn't mean we should.  We are especially careful to check with David before announcing any travel plans. I do hope in the coming weeks we can have some day trips out there and back. Just visiting for a couple of hours really wears Mary out, so I will try to make it so that we're also providing something more: food, for example, or other necessities. I might do the grocery shopping for the week for them, or the laundry. This way I can help David, too, who as Mary's main nurse is working damn hard these days.

4. Presents. Speaking of food, it's often hard to know what to give cancer/chemo patients. Many have little or no appetite, but many also suffer from weight loss, so small, delectable things can be especially lovely. Not too rich, because of nausea, but, say, a nice milk chocolate selection, or a cheeseball. One friend brought ribeyes just before chemo started, when Mary still had an appetite (and totally made the rest of us look bad. You know who you are). Flowers are nice, too, but Mary's allergies keep her from enjoying fresh flowers most of the time. When Dave and Mary couldn't come to V's birthday party, we showed up later that day with party hats in hand: last time we were there, the hats were still hanging on the closet door. Other gifts I've sent or considered:
  • thank-you cards. Early on after her diagnosis, we received a beautiful handmade thank you card from Mary, thanking us for our support and junk. Which was lovely. But I knew that with chemo, she would just not have the energy to maintain production of these, so I sent her a pack of 10 thank yous and two gel pens I bought at Michael's. Everyone loves new stationery, and between naps, she can dash off a note or two as she feels like it. And if she doesn't feel like it, that's okay, too.
  • a silk pillowcase (alopecia often causes a sensitive scalp, and satin or silk is recommended on many websites). V and I made her one from some really nice heavy sea-green silk, and I hope it brings her many sweet dreams.
  • lotions. Mary has a lotion obsession, and even though she's exhausted I'm sure she's finding a way to use good lotions. (I'd be careful of especially smelly ones, though, because sometimes strong smells can trigger nausea, too).
  • silk scarves or kid's hats. My cousin Erin, a two-time cancer survivor, mentioned that she found her wig was totally a waste of time and money, but she felt quite pretty in a fancy silk scarf, artfully tied around her head. And she also said that kid's hats work better on women's heads, especially without hair: they fit better, and just look more cute. V and I have chosen a great one to bring to Grandma next time we visit. Hopefully she'll let us take pictures!
I hope no one you love ever gets cancer, but chances are they will. If so, I hope these ideas help you. It's a whole different thing to be a primary caregiver (like David) than it is to be a secondary support person, but both jobs are so important.  I hope when chemo is over we will all be able to spend long periods of time together, and eat cheeseball, and drink cheap beer, and write a bunch of thank you cards for all the love the family has received on this sucky journey we're on.

I'm off to make some more cards. Suggestions are welcome: we take cancer seriously, but humor more seriously. Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

Lesley White-Kayser said...

Oh Jen, your family is our thoughts and prayers (pagan-tinged that they are)! I don't know your mother-in-law, but tell her that people on the other side of the country are rooting for her and totally believe she will rock the silk scarf look.