A rather important milestone quietly slipped into my thoughts this week . . . so subtle that I’m surprised I remembered it at all. Five years ago today was the day that my then-boyfriend / now-husband was diagnosed with colon cancer after a colonoscopy procedure that was supposed to “rule-out-the-scary-stuff” and confirm that all that was bugging his tummy was a pesky case of IBS. But, our journey over the last five years has been a much different one.

I’ll never forget that day or that moment when the doctor came in and said “We have a problem.” Time stood still for a bit and my reaction was incredibly calm . . . it’s almost like I wasn’t even surprised by the news. Maybe it was shock. Maybe it was denial. Perhaps it was the confluence of angels surrounding us at that very moment. But, my initial reaction was something like “Well now we know what is wrong with you . . . and so now we can get you fixed!” I just knew that I was meant to accompany Brian on this journey. We approached the situation with as much “let’s work the problem” determination as we would a technical error while under the gun on an important deadline. I didn’t have much “emotional” reaction until the next day when, after Brian’s first CT scan that morning, I decided to take a “mental health” day from work while Brian headed to the studio.

I came home, called my best friend, cried my eyes out, joined my friend for lunch, cried in my soup at Cozymel’s, then went to Saddle Creek for a little retail therapy. Shopping for clothes was something small that, in that moment, I could control. As I was getting out of my car at the shopping center, one of my co-workers and dear friends was leaving the Apple Store. She gave me exactly what I needed in that moment – a hug and assurance that Brian would pull through this without a doubt.

So, if, knowing what I know now, I could go back to that day and provide that devastated and fear-paralyzed “me” with a few words of wisdom, what things would I say?

Allow yourself a moment to grieve.
Nobody knows what the next days, weeks, months or years will bring. A loss through death is not the only experience that merits grief. A diagnosis of cancer brings with it the loss of a particular lifestyle and sense of security. It’s okay to take some time and acknowledge that.
It really does work.
Stay off Google.
Seriously, knock it off. All you’ll find is a bunch of scary statistics from a decade ago when a lot of the drugs they have now didn’t even exist that were tested on people who were much older, much sicker and not nearly as bright or good-looking as we are. And, besides, statistics are meant to be screwed with.
Open just one door at a time and don’t worry about the stuff down the hall.
This is the decision that Brian and I made on day one, and it was the best mutual decision that we have ever made. About anything. Your mind will wander to scary places if you let it, but only two things really matter . . . (1) what is true right now? and (2) staying focused on the desired outcome – CURE, baby!
Sleep and exercise are like oxygen right now.
Do whatever it takes to be a good steward of your own body during times of crisis.
Do a mind sweep.
Grab a piece of paper and ink it out.
Create a network of support.
Some people have strong existing support networks. Some need to assemble them – family, friends, doctors, advisors and a great therapist are essential.
If someone offers help, let them.
For their sake, not yours. If a person offers help, then they see the opportunity as a privilege. Don’t steal their joy.
Read (or listen to) some books.
Unglued, Getting Things Done and Boundaries. There are many other books that provided me with insight and support, but these three changed my life.
Cut people some slack.
If certain people makes you feel worse, don’t blame them. I promise they aren’t trying to bum you out. It’s a suck-tastic and awkward situation all around and they are 10 times more mortified than you are about the interaction. Truth is, there are no “right” words to say at a time like this.
Cut yourself some slack.
You might lose your cool and have a Level 10 reaction to a Level 3 problem on more than one occasion. It’s terribly embarrassing in the near term, but it’s not the mountain to die on and people who are awesome will soon forgive and forget (or if they’re REALLY awesome, they will pretend not to notice the fifty-shades-of-crazy).
Share only what you want to share.
Some people find comfort in blogging, posting and tweeting every step in their journey, and that’s okay. Others prefer to use more discretion, and they’s okay too.
Try not to let the condition define who you are.
It’s terribly frustrating to be perceived as Mr. or Mrs. Cancer-person when we’re so awesome at directing, designing, creating, producing, parenting, partying, etc. Do whatever you need to do to not let “being sick” be what people think of when they think of you.
Clean a drawer.
If nothing else is going right and you’ve lost all sense of control, go and clean a single drawer. It’s amazing how a little “win” can jerk you out of a funk.
Embrace the learning experience.
Sometimes it seems that your friends’ problems are about as significant as a debate on which flavor of Skittle-bomb is superior. Meanwhile, you’re over here having a 40,000-level dinner*. It’s amazing how quickly we have to “grow up” in the face of extreme adversity. It can be very scary-in-a-good way . . . appreciate the perspective and enjoy the ride!
Stay focused on your purpose and core values.
My purpose? To love Brian. Every. Single. Day.

Brian and I both feel strongly that the last five years have been the BEST of our lives. Happiness is not a destination, it’s an adventure. To my dearest Brian, thank you for the adventure.

#55 - Time

* If you have no idea what a “40,000 level dinner” is, Google “horizons of focus”.

TIME IS SLOW IMAGE | © John O’Nolan | Flickr Creative Commons
HOPE IMAGE | © pol sifter | Flickr Creative Commons

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10 Responses to Five Years Ago Today . . . Advice for Coping with a Loved One’s Illness

  1. Steve Burns says:

    I don’t remember exactly when I heard about it, but I remember the surprise and shock from when I heard about Brian’s cancer. Always glad that everything has turned out well!

  2. Chris says:

    Love this. I’m definitely sharing this list. Thank you!

  3. Kim says:

    I was trying to remember the other day how long it had been. I knew it was close to Emma’s d-day though.

    This list should be handed to ever single person affected by cancer. It’s amazing what you see in hindsight and it would be nice to know it on the front end. The one thing I always tell people is ‘lower your standards.’ Get a tiny Christmas tree and leave the big one in the attic, don’t try to keep your house as clean as someone else’s, and for the love of all that is holy do NOT volunteer for anything. If people think you are selfish, lazy, etc. then oh well. They’ll have to deal with that while you’re over there trying to cure cancer. lol

  4. Lauren says:

    This is a wonderful read and resource for individuals dealing with a cancer diagnosis. I wish I had it 2 years ago when my husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer, or 1.5 years ago when my 3 year old son was diagnosed with leukemia (he is now 5) Reading this today, reminds me how blessed I am to have these two men in my life, and how helpful it would of been back then. As someone who has spent many hours keeping her emotions in check so I could care for and comfort my husband/son, it is so very important to take time for yourself as a caregiver! And yes…google can truly be your enemy. #4 and #11 really hit home. Thank you so much for sharing! <3

  5. Melissa says:

    One of the other cancer Mom’s on a group I am in posted this. My daughter JUST finished treatment for cancer and this is something I can certainly relate to! I will be sharing this. Thanks. :-)

  6. Jill says:

    I’m reading this as my 5 year old son Jackson is scheduled to begin his last chemo cycle for a brain tumor diagnosed May ’12. I can truly appreciate this list and have often looked back over this past year wishing we knew then what we know now and looking forward to our 5 year perspective someday. Being an elementary school teacher, I pride myself in being organized, planned, and creative. However, I’ve found this past year has obliterated my sense of control and I’m often challenged by this issue of no longer feeling in charge of my life. With coming to the transition of finishing treatment and moving onto maintenance, along with returning back to my classroom after taking a leave of absence to be Jax’s primary care giver, I’m again finding myself feeling overwhelmed.
    In attempting to take some control back, I rearranged my kitchen cupboards late one night when I just couldn’t shut my mind of to get that much needed sleep that you referenced. I completely flip-flopped my upper cupboards from one side of the kitchen to the other. My hubby was absolutely baffled why I would take the time and energy to do such an unnecessary project when there are so many other things I need to do. But this was actually something I did need to do, for me, to feel a bit of control during this time of transition. Although it confused the heck out of him (and I have to admit, just a couple weeks later I’m still looking in the other cupboard for what I once had there before moving it!) it helped me though feel some sense of control. Thank you for this list, which I plan on printing & framing to display at home and on my desk at school as a reminder to myself as we continue on our journey.

    • Andreah says:

      Thank you, Jill! Wishing little Jackson a swift and thorough path to remission. And wishing YOU the strength, grace and clarity you need to see him through. I hope you’ll check out some of the other articles on the site … If I hadn’t discovered the productivity and organization methods that I did WHEN I did, I have no idea how I would have made it through to this point … You may also find some of them helpful. All the best to you and your family!

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