This past week I was talking with a fellow cancer patient and we spoke of how the journey often seems harder for those traveling with the patient.
THE WORLD SPINS
At first glance that may seem unreasonable or even a little insensitive. Stick with me for a few minutes, understand that I write as someone who has battled cancer the past two years.
When the doctor speaks those words, “you have cancer” everyone’s world starts to spin. The patient is immediately forced to deal with issues of mortality and grief. Grief over the life experiences cancer may rob them of. Both patient and caregiver are forced into learning a new language as they seek to develop and follow a treatment plan.
Caregivers and loved ones begin to deal with grief, loss, and develop a plan of attack to “cure” this illness that is attacking their loved one. Caregivers lives are thrown in turmoil. Suddenly they are taking care of household chores and someone who until recently was taking care of themselves and contributing to the well-being of the family.
Over time the patient is “given room” to process the issues they are dealing with. There is a moment when most come to grips with their mortality. In that moment a new set of priorities become clear. What was once important may fade into the background as they want to invest the remainder of their lives into what is “truly important.” Cancer may ultimately win, but it will not rob them of investing what life remains into what is of the highest value.
WEIGHING HEAVIER AND HEAVIER
At the same time the patient is gaining clarity, becoming focused on what is important for the remaining days of their lives, there is something very different going on with caregivers. With each day the responsibility of caring for their loved one is weighing heavier and heavier. There is less time to focus on what was once joyful and life-giving for them, there is much to be done. In their heart they want to fill the role of caregiver. They love the one fighting the disease, yet in those quiet moments they can see the toll it is taking on both their lives. Ask most caregivers and they would say, “The struggle is worth it.” That does not make the struggle any less real.
Caregivers feel the need to remain “strong” as they watch their loved one go through treatment. As the effects of treatment and the disease weaken their loved one it is very, very hard to watch. A few weeks ago, Nancy and I met with Dr. Saroha to decide if I was going to enter maintenance chemo or take a break. Following that appointment, we went out for lunch. Sitting at the table Nancy’s eyes started to tear up, she quickly excused herself to use the restroom. I knew what she was doing. She was disappointed, I was disappointed, it was hard for her to watch me continue treatment. A few minutes later she returned, and we had a nice lunch. The burden she carried was heavier.
CLARITY AND CONFUSION
If you talk with many cancer patients, they will speak of how cancer helped them gain a renewed focus or clarity about life. There is something about being told, “you have cancer” that causes you to prioritize what is important. You learn to live in the moment, focused on what you have named as priorities. Many of the things in life that used to be anxiety causing become secondary issues and you learn to be at peace with them.
While the cancer patient may have this newfound outlook on life those who are traveling the journey with them probably have not changed the way they view life. Some of what the patient may view as “secondary issues” are of primary concern to the caregiver. When the patient shares their newfound clarity it may, or may not, be a shared value with others.
At home this shows up when I am not overly concerned with medical bills. Sure, they need to be paid, they will be paid, they simply are not a priority for me. Worse comes to worse they will be paid when my life insurance policy gets paid out. Nancy carries the burden of worrying about these bills while in my mind they are secondary issues.
I struggle with similar things at church. I am no longer interested in some of the “games” that get played within congregations. Time is precious. I want to invest my time in things that will bring about lasting change for the Kingdom of God. I have little problem speaking clearly about those areas and pointing to how I believe we should be moving.
The struggle comes when others do not share the same sense of urgency that I have. Why should they? The doctor has not spoken into their lives. Life continues to move at its normal pace, while for me it feels as if time is hurtling like an asteroid through space. I have learned to be careful how and where I share the clarity cancer has granted me.
Rayann (my daughter) and I had one of those deep and meaningful conversations on Sunday. The kind of conversation that makes me proud to be her father. We spoke of worship and being in one of those seasons where worship does not come easy. I asked, “Do you think some of your struggle might have to do with my illness?”
The truth is that my illness impacts almost every area of our lives. When I struggle in any area I have learned to question how my journey is impacting the specific struggle.
I was not surprised when her reply was, “Yes.” “I do not like it when you are sick at home and then go to church and ‘pretend’ as if everything is okay.” We spent the rest of our ride home talking about how I am trying to move as I travel this journey. I confessed that it is hard for me to be honest about my weakness and illness so there are times people simply do not know how I am truly feeling. It was a good conversation.
BLESSINGS OF ENERGY
I believe I am moving well through this season of life. Rayann and I talked about how one of Abba’s gifts these past two years has been “a burst of energy” every Sunday morning. This blessing has allowed me to be present and to continue leading and speaking into the community at First Baptist. While I (the patient) have felt I was walking that road well, it has been hard for Rayann (the caregiver) to watch as she has known deeper truths about how I have been feeling each Sunday.
WILLING AND EAGER
As someone with cancer I have made peace with my own mortality. I have a newfound clarity about how I want to invest the remainder of my life. I am at peace with who and whose I am. To be totally truthful, I am excited for what the season ahead holds for me. I am willing, eager, to invest the remainder of my time here on earth preaching, teaching and walking with the people of First Baptist.
A CRY FOR HEALING
My caregivers may not share my outlook on life. For them it is hard to watch me move and function in ways that reveal the toll this disease and treatment has taken upon my body. They are watching me weaken. What they see is the outward, physical signs of my illness. The cry of their heart would be for the cancer to be removed from my body and for me to be restored to pre-cancer Dan. Each time they see me stumble or struggle they are reminded that is not reality. It is painful.
This has become a little longer than I imagined when I first started. It is important. The truths spoken here apply to any caregiver, not just those walking someone battling cancer.
If you happen to be in the Kennett Square area First Baptist Church has a Caregivers Support Group. This small group is a direct result of my cancer. It is one shining example of God redeeming, restoring & transforming what was meant for bad into something good. The group meets twice a month and provides a place for caregivers to share their journey and draw support from one another. Should you choose to attend you will meet the best caregiver one could ever hope to have, ask for Nancy Nicewonger.