How To Help A Cancer Patient, Part I

January 19, 2010 at 8:00 PM (Family, Help, Treatment) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

When you first hear the words, “You have cancer,” instantly a million things pop into your head. If you’re like me, after the initial “Holy sh!t I’m going to die” comes, “Who’s going to run carpool this week?” or “Oh, no, my house is a disaster area and people will be coming over.”

Once other people hear you have cancer, they unfailingly end every conversation by saying, “Let me know what I can do to help.” But at the time, you can never think of anything, and then when you think, “Wow, I wish I had someone to walk the dog tomorrow…” you can’t remember who it was who offered to help (chemo brain). How can something so generous turn out to be such a royal pain?

Within about forty-eight hours of my surgery, my crack research team (read: family members with internet connections desperate to DO something) had located the best Gyn/Onc in the area for my case, researched the then-hot-and-trendy-new IP chemo protocol, sent Edible Arrangements, and hooked me up with a lifesaving website that would feature prominently in my treatment and recovery plans for the next three years (and may come around again).

Lotsahelpinghands.com is a website that allows an administrator (you? your BFF?) to set up a free homepage for the cancer patient and their family, friends, and supporters, who log onto the site and sign up with a password once they are invited to join. The administrator sets up “tasks” – events as simple as picking up drycleaning or running to the grocery store, or as complicated as making a meal with specific dietary requirements (not too spicy, the kids don’t eat tomatoes, etc.) and bringing it over to your house. The sky’s the limit; my administrator set up “daily laugh” tasks so people would send me email jokes, and people from my then-kindergartner’s class signed up to host playdates for him and his little brother. I had people weeding my garden, raking leaves and planting mums in the fall, and delivering more delicious dinners than any one family could eat in a month of Sundays, except Mr. Wonderful was involved so we ate it all.

The BEST thing about lotsahelpinghands (aside from it being free) is that it gives the overwhelmed family a way to pass off some of the crazy-lot of organizing that comes with the new regime. And the seemingly unceasing refrain of “How can I help?” has an easy outlet: sign up for the website and start taking on tasks.

The OTHER best thing about lotsahelpinghands is that it taught me to let go a little and lean on others. My family is so self-reliant (and Mr. Wonderful and I slight control freaks) that allowing other people to take over and fold my laundry was nearly painful at the beginning. But as my kids and I got more used to giving up some control so we had more time to be together as a family (especially important when it seemed there might only be a couple more years) I realized that it was one of cancer’s silver linings. My boys learned the value of doing for others, and we now are honored to pay it forward whenever we get the chance. The sense of community may have been more instrumental in my survival than the chemo.

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Post-Chemo Brain Reboot

December 5, 2009 at 5:13 PM (Energy, Recovery) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

It’s really amazing how my life has changed since October 8. I guess I’ve been on chemo or some other drug for enough months out of the past four years that I got used to being dulled around the edges. Like the aerator grill in my faucet had filled up with sediment, and the water that flowed was slowed to a trickle.

I’m not sure how much of my mental slowdown can be attributed to chemo brain and how much was due to my persistent, really frustrating fatigue. Anyone on chemo will tell you that forgetfulness becomes a way of life, and that you should probably put off your appearance on Jeopardy! until your hair grows back, if you’re really serious about winning. When you’re chemo-tired, and living your day from one sleep to the next (and there were definitely days like that), the last thing you have the energy for is coming up with a good blog topic or a killer craft to rock the next birthday party. But there’s also the possibility that the ass-kicking-name-taking process took most of the mental focus that I had outside of the eternal “what’s-for-dinner?” dilemma, and I completely lost all memory of being a smart person.

Now that I’m on the miracle drug, and my hair is growing in, and my body is (mostly) back under my control, it’s as if someone has CLR-ed my faucet and the water is running again. I wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking of things I’d like to do. Projects I’d like to complete. (Not just start, but complete!) Dishes I’d like to cook. Things I could make for Christmas presents. Stuff to write about. And when I wake up in the morning, I can actually remember the things I thought of in the dark.

I’m almost overwhelmed at the different trains of thought that I can keep track of at any given time. My mental soundtrack has been one or two notes simple for so long, I’d forgotten what it felt like to hear the full melody, harmony, counterpoint and rhythm rolling along with it. And far from being confused by the din, I’m enjoying hearing all the different notes, thinking about them individually, planning how to work on them, maybe even discarding them and moving on.

I’m not promising global domination, nor that my sedentary tendencies have been banished for good, but perhaps I’m starting to fit into these grown-up shoes I’ve been wearing for three-and-a-half years now. At least I’ll be better company at cocktail parties. And Alex Trebek should be quaking in his boots.

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