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Friendship

Lately the cancer world has me pondering the importance of friendships. What would we do without friends? Women, especially, needs their gal pals. In fact, recently on facebook a post went around about a study that was done that determined the best thing a man can do for his health is to marry a woman, whereas the best thing a woman can for her health is to nurture her friendships with other women.

It’s just so true.

A friend can be there to support me through the difficult moments of Elliot’s diagnosis and treatment, even if her children have never had cancer. She “gets it”. It doesn’t matter that it’s not her child, she actually feels the fear and anxiety I feel. How do women do it? We take on all the pain and suffering of those around us. When someone we care about hurts, we hurt too. Men are better at compartmentalizing their lives, at separating their emotions from their actions.

I was chatting recently with a mom, whose son had cancer years ago and is now considered “cured” (apparently you can only say “cured” with quotation marks, because there is never a real guarantee. Darn it, and here I was hoping for some kind of official He Is Cured document from the hospital at some point!) She mentioned that someone had recently told her that she should now “shut the door” on cancer, that it’s part of the past and it’s time to move on to thinking about new things.

We stared at each other a bit after she said that. Then she said it would be pretty hard to do as she had just signed up for a two-year term working with a children’s cancer group.

We laughed.

The thing is, there’s no door to shut.

Being a cancer mom isn’t a choice, and it’s (unfortunately) not a temporary role. Nobody enters the cancer wold willingly, but once you’re there, you don’t have much of a choice. You adapt. Even my friends whose kids don’t have cancer have been dragged into this world with me, sure, not as intensely as I have, but whether they like it or not, they can now chat easily about blood cell levels and remission and chemotherapy side effects and vomit stain removal and needles and port-a-caths. And they can laugh at it all, and cry at it all, and while they laugh and cry they can also make supper and do two loads of laundry and find the missing lego piece and clean the living room and feed the cat and stop one child from hitting the other and text a friend and polish their toe nails. While they are doing all this the husband usually only has time to walk into the kitchen open a cupboard, stare into it’s depths for several minutes, then ask, “Where do we keep the salt?”.

Ok I don’t mean to insult the male population there, and I may be slightly exaggerating (my husband actually knows where the salt is!). But seriously folks, let’s take a few seconds here to applaud all the women out there, cancermoms and cancerfriends, who are going through this journey or have gone through it already.

I live in an all-male household. This has some advantages. I told Jesse the other day to take out the garbage, and he replied with some kind of grumble that sounded like “ok”. A friend of mine (male) with a teenage daughter recently told me he had asked his daughter to take out the garbage and the girl broke down crying, accused her dad of trying to ruin her life, and ran to her room, slamming the door. It turns out she had just done her hair and put on her new skirt which she had wanted to show her dad (which he failed to notice) and it was raining out, which, any woman would know, means there is no way the garbage is being taken out in these conditions and how dare you not notice my hair and outfit?!?!

Jesse took the garbage out without another word. He also did not bother to put on socks and shoes or a t-shirt. And it was raining out. When he came in I said,  “You”ll catch a cold going out like that!” and he grumbled something that sounded like “ok” and walked into the kitchen and ate an entire loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter and drank a liter of milk.

So there are advantages to the testosterone prominence in my home, and disadvantages. Sometimes, I miss having someone to talk things out with. There are occasions, during quiet moments, when I have said to my husband “So what do you want to talk about?” and he gets that slightly panicked look. Daniel comes home from school and I excitedly ask him how his day went, what did they do etc etc (It’s a new school year, I’m curious!) and he replies “it was very… school-ish.” and I don’t get much more than that…  I still recall noticing Jesse, around age 6, staring intensively out his bedroom window for a long thoughtful moment, and asking him what he was thinking about. He replied “Well, when I see a car, I think: ‘a car’. When I see a person, I think: ‘a person’.”

With my friends I can talk easily about all of life’s mysteries. The anxiety of worrying about a relapse. The ups and downs of every day life. The stress of juggling the kids’ back to school schedule. The joy of shoe shopping. The confusion of relationships.

There is a special bond between cancer friends too – we who have faced “the dragon” and felt its hot breath hovering over us (oh that was very descriptive, wasn’t it? Feels right, like we’re little knights in shining armour brandishing our swords above our heads, torn between fear and fury).

You would think a group of women bonded by cancer would be a sad, weeping lot, all of us sitting together in a semi-circle, sharing our sad tales over tea, a box of kleenex nearby being quickly used up. Well, so far, in my experience, it has been quite the contrary! Swap that tea for a good bottle of red wine and there we are, laughing our heads off as one mom tells the story of sneaking a pizza in to her daughter’s hospital room and being caught by a nurse. Keep the kleenex – we’re laughing so hard we’re crying.

Don’t get me wrong. Behind that pizza story is the very real image burned into our minds of the mom who has stayed by her child’s bedside for days, the i.v.s of chemotherapy and anti-cancer medicine hanging overhead, and then the anti-nausea medicine, the anti-pain medicine, the medicine that helps you get over your addiction to the anti-pain medicine, the medicine that helps you sleep, stay awake, poop, not poop, and of course the medicine to treat the side effects of all the medicine. The mom who is exhausted, hungry, scared, sad, and has decided that dammit, she’s having pizza with her kid. The mom who is overjoyed if her child is actually willing to eat one bite of food.

We don’t need her to explain all that because we’ve all lived it. What we need, mostly, is to laugh. And be together.

Because when the dragon rears its head and starts charging at you, and all you’ve got is your little sword, you need everyone else to show up with their little swords. One dragon against a whole bunch of sword carrying women (and a pizza) is all we need to keep fighting. And hopefully, most of the time, win the war.

What to do or say, and Thanks to all who did.

So it’s happened to your friend, co-worker, family member, neighbour, or just someone you know and care about. A tragedy of some kind, maybe a cancer diagnosis like ours.

Now you want to know what to do. What to say. Do you bring it up? Or do you say nothing, giving the person their privacy? What is “the right thing” to say? How can you help them without causing them to have to relive the sadness? Especially when there is nothing you can do or say to fix it, to make it go away and make life go back to how it used to be?

There is no perfect answer, no “special statement” you can make that will be just right. The person you care about is not expecting you to come up the right thing to do or say, for the simple reason that they are also in unfamiliar territory. They don’t know how to act either. They don’t know if they want to talk about it or not, they don’t know how to behave, they’ve never done this before either!

Of course I can’t answer for everyone. But I can tell you what helped me.  The most important thing, no matter what, is, don’t abandon the person. By that I mean, don’t pretend “it”, whatever it is, hasn’t happened. Don’t assume if they need help they will ask for it. Don’t think that they would rather just act normal. Normal doesn’t exist anymore.

One of my co-workers came up to me on my first day back at work after Elliot was diagnosed. Everyone knew of course, my workplace is one of these places where everyone knows everything about everyone. The joke in our workplace is that your coworkers  would all know about your imminent divorce before you do.

This was not someone I knew particularly well, although in my line of work people do get to know each other better than in most places.  So he just walks up and stands next to where I am sitting at work. He waits till I am free to talk, and quickly says: “I don’t know what to say. Here I am.”

And that’s all that was needed. I felt, just for a moment, less alone.

My family, friends, and coworkers have truly amazed me during this. So yes, here comes the mushy part, where I tearfully thank everyone for all they have done for me (I am picturing myself in a designer evening gown at a microphone, clinging to an Oscar as I make my thank you speech).

To my mom, who has also been battling cancer for twelve years, and who dropped everything and flew 4000 miles to be here and help out. Three times, within 10 months.

To my dad, who is always the first to read and email me about a post I’ve written on the blog updating people about Elliot, despite a 6 hour time difference. (Does he have some kind of alarm that wakes him if I post something, so he can be first?) He also has made the long trip here twice recently, to be here for important moments.

To my big sister, who carefully plans and saves up for her dream trips, then blows all her savings on flights  to Switzerland. Over and over. And then says it’s fine because she needed more chocolate anyway.

To my little sister, who is the most patient playmate Elliot could have.

To the rest of my family, my brothers, my cousins, aunts and uncles, my parents’ friends and everyone who keeps sending me messages and letters of support, little gifts and cards for Elliot, messages on my blog. You have gone out of your way to show me you care, and I hope you know what it has meant.

To Martin’s parents, who arrived in our hospital room less than 24 hours after hearing the news, even though they live in Denmark.  To their patience with me as I ask them one million medical questions (they are a doctor and a nurse) and have them review every blood test, scan and protocol, even though they are all in French (did I mention they are Danish?). They have followed this drama every step of the way, cancelling trips so they can be “on call” for us (apparently Japan can wait.)

To Martin’s sister, who flew down right away for a weekend, to support her brother through the initial shock. It was her first time in years (or ever?) with a whole weekend away from her three young kids, and she spent the entire time… playing with our 4 year old.

To my friends…

One who listened to me for a long time on that first night on the phone, and who texted me at the hospital that first night until 2am (I didn’t notice the time until a few weeks later when I was reading over the messages… so a sleepless night for her too.)

One who sends me a message every single time I’m at the hospital to check on me (I’m not even sure how she does this, we’ve been to the hospital over 100 times by my calculations).

One who drops cookies and chocolate in my mailbox randomly. (The chocolate, I insist, is only for me. The cookies I share with the kids.)

One who sends me uplifting, caring messages on a regular basis despite having gone through her own personal tragedy recently, and is always available for coffee and a chat.

One who lives in Canada and felt helpless to know what to do, so started sending me funny random emails about her daily life on a regular basis on the theory that it would distract me (the suitcase-shaped wedding cake was a classic).

To all my friends with kids who now know almost as much as I do about white blood cell levels and germs… And bring their kids over to play with my son inside even on beautiful sunny days when they would probably rather be at the park…

To my friends at work who, feeling the need to “do something”, collected so much money from all my coworkers that Elliot had a second Christmas…

To my girlfriends here who bought Elliot an end-of-chemo gift he’ll never forget: a big-boy bike. And then surprised me with a fabulous gift certificate to a spa.

And several friends who just keep checking on me, sending little gifts, leaving things in my locker at work, taking me out for coffee and drinks (oh and I’m not forgetting our “special” night out in November girls!)

To all our family and friends who came to Elliot’s end-of-chemo party, some travelling quite far to be there, some wearing very special t-shirts! And those who wanted to be there but couldn’t make it. It was a magical day for him.

To my new “cancer” friend, who’s son had this very cancer years ago, and is now a normal 20 year old. She let me know what I was in for but also gave me hope. And some good advice in answer to my desperate question “But how did you cope?”, she calmly said “You cope because you have no other choice.”

To ARFEC (Association Romande des Familles d’Enfants Atteints de Cancer), who were there to support us from the first day.

To Elliot’s teacher, who has magically managed to make him feel like he is still part of her class despite the fact that he has missed almost the entire year, by dropping letters, cards and little projects in our mailbox, and by teaching a class of twenty young children about cancer in a way that made them understand and relate to it without turning it into something weird and scary, so that when Elliot comes back they are ready for him.

To my co worker who made sure I knew he was there if I needed to talk, anytime.

To the anonymous donor who wanted to give us 5000chf when our insurance wouldn’t cover one of the chemotherapy drugs. (The money was sent to ARFEC instead, and the insurance company changed their mind after the newspaper story created an uproar of public outrage).

To the guy at the local boulangerie who keeps giving me a free cookie to take home for Elliot, even though the subject of Elliot, cancer, or the type of cookies Elliot likes, has never come up. (And it is exactly the right kind of cookie.)

To our pharmacist here in Rolle who has spent hours researching different medications for Elliot, trying to find the ones that “taste ok”, even to the point of making pills herself.

To the father of my two older boys, for letting me keep them last year at Christmas even though that was not normally the arrangement, no questions asked.

To my two older boys, who are just great.

To my husband, where do I begin… Somehow we created this perfect little boy with this tragic little flaw, and despite everything, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And to Elliot, who when he whispered goodnight before falling asleep tonight, put his arm around me and murmured  softly in my ear“ You know, I love you and papa just as much as my polar bear…”

THANKS.

(Wild applause and standing ovation from the audience now as I gracefully exit the stage… and probably tumble down the stairs because I’m not used to high heels…)

 

Elliot’s end-of-chemo party gifts