All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once wrote. While having cancer in the family doesn’t necessarily equate to unhappiness, it does come with unique challenges.
If the afflicted loved one survives the battle, cancer can be a source of triumph and strength for the family. Unfortunately, that is not the case for all cancer patients.
In 2013, both my parents were diagnosed with stage four cancer. That same year, my father passed away. And like a nightmare that didn’t want to end, my mother followed three years later. This left me and my two siblings orphaned at a young age. My older sister is now 26 while my younger brother is only 13.
In retrospect, there were many things I could have done better to deal with the simultaneous terminal illness of my parents. However, life doesn’t come with a manual that tells you what to do when a loved one has cancer. There is no flow chart and no instructions on how to grasp the reality that you only have a few years or months left with them. You can only do so much with the limited time.
Cancer comes with many clichés and misconceptions. When we talk about that dreaded disease, we associate it with weight and hair loss. However, it is much more than that. How about weight gain and hair growth in the most unusual places such as the face? It did happen to my mom after chemotherapy.
In the 2001 film “Wit,” starring Emma Thompson, the actress faces the camera to share the musings of the main character, Vivian Bearing. While the protagonist is able to keep her sharp wit throughout the whole tribulation, my mom, who coincidentally is also named Vivian, lost her cognitive skills as her lung cancer spread to her brain.
She couldn’t remember the passwords to her computer, mobile phone and ATM cards. She was an assistant vice president for the IT division of a multinational company, a brilliant career woman for most of her life. It was difficult seeing my mom being crippled by her own thoughts.
Months before her death, she became completely bedridden and nonverbal in a borrowed hospital bed at home. I was on a trip to Coron, Palawan province, when she died.
Losing a mother
To this day, I still struggle to forgive myself for taking that vacation. I lost not only my mother, but my best friend and confidante as well.
While my mom was spared the severe physical side effects, my dad, Ray, a handsome geologist and respected scientist and professor in his field, transformed into a skeletal man with thinning grey hair and blackened skin from radiation.
What was almost unimaginable was the excruciating pain he had to endure from the cancer in his pancreas, which spread to his liver. “Help, help!” were his last words on his deathbed. No amount of morphine or fentanyl from the hospital’s pain management clinic helped.
What I admired most about my dad was that he continued to be a breadwinner until the very end, despite his condition. He would consult for various clients and head to work in a wheelchair and thermal clothes to keep him warm.
He would even play chess with my brother, who was only 10 years old at the time. In family gatherings, he would reward my brother with a medal for every 10 wins—all while he was in severe pain.
Unlike in movies and books, where cancer is romanticized and loved ones have all the time in the world to comfort the patient, real life is much more complex.
There are inevitable off days when you are just tired of changing adult diapers, driving to the hospital for chemotherapy and paying hefty bills. There are times when you are so exhausted you want a massage but feel guilty because you’re not the one with a terminal illness.
There can even be moments where you have arguments and misunderstandings with your sick loved one, leading to a never-ending cycle of regret.
Don’t take things personally
If I could turn back time, this is what I would have told myself while my parents were fighting cancer:
1) Don’t take things too personally. It’s normal for cancer patients to experience depression; they need time alone or to be angry. No matter how hurtful their words or actions can be, never take them to heart. Continue showing your love.
2) Hire the right people for added support. You may already have a team of medical professionals but what happens when it’s time for hospice care? Acknowledge the fact that you can’t be the primary caregiver, especially if you have a job. There are plenty of caregivers who offer their services. It’s worth the investment.
3) Nourish your body. Sleepless nights in a cold hospital room, a fast-food diet and lack of exercise can take a toll on your physical well-being. Cancer patients are also prone to catching infectious diseases which can greatly exacerbate their condition. Stay healthy.
4) Take care of your mental health. Cancer can be a traumatizing experience. From altered appearances to drastic changes in routine and financial issues—it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Each family member’s psychological wellbeing must be taken into account. Seek professional help if needed.
5) Stop feeling guilty. Need some time off? Longing for a literal walk in the park? How about a manicure and pedicure or a nice haircut? Never feel guilty for wanting to pamper yourself or spend time alone. Cancer affects caregivers, too.
6) Spend quality time together. Time is the best gift you can give a cancer patient. Hold their hand and listen to their stories and fears. Massage aching parts of their body. Kiss them in the morning and at night.
7) Make them feel special. Help fulfill their dreams, wishes or even the simplest of requests, such as having softer bedsheets or eating peeled fruits (yes, my dad needed to have his grapes peeled). Take them to their dream destination. Organize a fun get-together or even a fundraising concert in their honor. You will not regret a single moment. —CONTRIBUTED