Growing Up: Learning to keep it real

This is always one of my favorite issues of Maine Women. Every person profiled is remarkable. You can’t help but feel inspired and ready to conquer the world alongside these women after turning the last page.

I’ve been honored to share some incredible stories of courage and perseverance.

This year, I’m not sure what made me look past the athletes to the bigger reason why they “Tri” every July.

My mind started to wander away from the event and toward those with cancer. And their journeys that are just as inspiring.

We support the Tri for a Cure athletes by donating to their fundraising goal, keeping them positive through training, by volunteering at the event and by standing on the sidelines cheering.

So how can we better support those we love who are battling cancer?

What started off as a few brief questions with a health professional in oncology turned into a dialogue. Every day she is in treatment rooms and with patients, whether the news is good or bad, through the ups and downs. She is more than just their provider; she is an extension of each patient’s family. And for that reason, I am keeping her name private.

So I kept it simple and asked, “As supporters of those with cancer, what can we do? What can we buy? What is the insider knowledge?”

According to her, it’s not one perfect thing you buy or a revolutionary idea. In fact, when it comes to supporting someone diagnosed with cancer, you’re already equipped.

1. Be there and stay there. Often the best ideas are the simplest. Being a constant source of support is the most important thing you can do. She explains a lot of people are there in the beginning or the end of treatment. But it’s an everyday struggle. Patients can isolate themselves and having friends and family around can help.

2. Stay positive and keep your perspective. After diagnosis, the loss of control can be a hard element to deal with for patients and people don’t talk about that. Just listening can be huge. Don’t give advice. Instead, let someone talk about how she is feeling. Patients often want to talk and feel supported, no matter what. She also says the chemo treatment room isn’t a sad place. There is a lot of laughter, smiling and silliness.

3. Be honest. We’ve all struggled with what to say, but the best thing we can do is to keep it real and don’t pander to what you think someone wants to hear. During treatment, people often default to saying to patients, “You look good” or “You don’t look like you have cancer.” Instead, be honest and acknowledge, “Yes this totally sucks, but you can do it!” (See No. 2.)

3a. Things will never be the same, so don’t pretend they will. Even those in remission are permanently transformed, physically and emotionally. Everyday life has changed and patients live with a “new normal” for life. Side-effects from chemo can last a lifetime. It’s living with the constant what-ifs, too: Will the cancer come back? What is my life without chemo?

4. “The worst flu of your life.” While practitioners have become better at treating the side-effects of chemo, the most common complaint is fatigue. The most basic tasks can feel insurmountable and take 100 times longer than normal to complete. Helping with basic chores or walking the dog can be huge. She mentions that going to the pharmacy for a loved one with cancer is often talked about and appreciated.

5. Ask before dropping off that casserole. It’s not just because nausea during treatment is common. (It can often be managed with meds.) It’s also about tastebuds changing. During treatment, food can taste like cardboard, or metal. Often patients can’t taste sugar or salt. While the gesture to bring dinner is huge (No. 4) just ask first about dietary preferences that day or week.

6. The big picture is hopeful. She and other members of the community are treating cancer the same way they would a chronic disease. There is an emphasis on survivorship that wasn’t there even 10 years ago.

I normally hate cliches and if you had told me the above advice, I would have scoffed and rolled my eyes. But often, when something is trite or cliched, it’s because it’s true. Let the professionals handle chemo and curing cancer in our lifetime. Here is your reminder to be human and empathetic and to be present. Get off Facebook and go do something nice for someone with cancer, often.

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