It’s November, National Family Caregivers Month. I don’t usually write about months attributed to certain causes, but in this case — and in the spirit of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in the US — this is a chance to honor those who took such excellent care of me during cancer diagnosis and treatment. As my readers know, at-home support during the darkest time of my life was nonexistent, and I went through treatments and mental agony alone.
But, now, looking back, I realize I was never really alone. I had many caregivers who tended to me as a family member.
They were my medical team — doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, my then-primary care physician became a superhero. She called me several times to see how I was coping. I could tell she cared deeply about me. She had recommended my surgeon and medical oncologist. She followed up with them and with me, keeping up with my treatments, health, and emotional well-being.
Years later, when I underwent a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with DIEP flap reconstruction, she visited me in the hospital. I had a rough time in ICU, and I was stressed and depressed, even though I was now in another recovery unit. She showed up at my bedside one day and held my hand. And right there, she gave me the pep talk that gave me the stamina to get through my hospital stay. “I know this is difficult for you,” she said, “but you need to hang onto courage. You need to be brave and get through this.”
And with these words, she nudged me through the darkness.
My internist’s medical group unfortunately became affiliated with another hospital, so we had to part ways — but not before I told her how much she meant to me.
At first, my surgeon seemed to lack emotion, and I didn’t think he cared about me. But that changed on the day another doctor botched my stereotactic core biopsy, leaving me understandably shaken. But then, that very day, my surgeon seemingly materialized out of nowhere and performed the biopsy himself. We spoke while he worked, not as a doctor and a patient, but as human to human. The nurses and medical assistants rubbed my legs and held my hand to comfort, calm, and nurture me.
“I don’t want it to be cancer,” I told him pleadingly. And he responded, “I don’t want it to be cancer either.” That comment showed he cared about me. When he called to give me the news that I had breast cancer, he was enormously kind, telling me that I could drop everything I was doing and see him that day if I wanted to. I declined his offer, but I appreciated it.
My mastectomy surgeon, a cancer survivor herself who had had a single mastectomy, spoke to me, not just as a doctor, but as someone personally touched by cancer. She totally “got” me. We had so much to talk about, and I instantly knew that I wanted her to do my bilateral mastectomy. After the procedure, she visited me in the hospital often and advocated for me.
My medical oncologist took wonderful care of me from the very beginning. He spoke to me, not only as a patient, but as a fellow human being. When I was having cognitive dysfunction from the chemotherapy and feeling sorry for myself, I told him I was stupid. He held my hand and told me that I was not stupid and then explained why I was intelligent. Each follow-up visit has been rough for me, given my PTSD, but it’s wonderful to know that he is always in my corner, encouraging me to write, and is generally interested in me as a person.
My radiation oncologist was a ray of sunshine. She smiled often, with a positive, authentic demeanor. We spent a lot of time laughing, which is amazing, considering that I was there for cancer treatment. Once one of the radiation machines was undergoing maintenance, causing a delay in patients getting treatment during their allotted time slots. To lift patients’ spirits, she and the wonderful staff handed out small flowering plants to each patient. One time she was chatting with another doctor, and I appeared, sick with some kind of infection. She immediately left her colleague to take care of me.
One day she said, “I love you,” as she hugged me. While some people might think that is crossing the doctor-patient boundary line, the context of this statement was not lost on me. And neither was the impact of hearing these words at a low point in my life.
Doctors weren’t my only caregivers, however. Nurses were so kind to me. I fell to pieces in front of a nurse at a time when I was so overwhelmed with my diagnosis and starting radiation and chemotherapy. The nurse sat down besides me and held me, rocking me like a baby as I sobbed. She gently wiped the tears off my face and glasses. She nurtured me with dignity.
And, of course, Ann. My beloved oncology nurse. Knowing that I was alone for treatment, she gave me the extra doses of TLC I needed to get through treatments.
Overall, doctors and nurses communicated with each other so well, it seemed everyone knew whenever I entered the Cancer Care Center.
Organizations were also carers. A volunteer with the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program called me every week, and we talked and talked. She regularly got me through the darkness. Gilda’s Club Chicago was a safe haven, where I learned that I could have fun, even though cancer had entered my life.
My brother and aunt were my familial heroes. Although their being out of town meant they couldn’t be there for me physically, they took great care of me by calling me often and talking me down from the ledge of absolute terror and despair. And they came in for a couple of my surgeries and cared for me afterward. I remember after diagnosis my brother calling me and crying with me. Friends also supported me with their calling and stopping by. My parents had difficulty coping, but they tried by calling me each week to see how I was doing.
I am so grateful to so many people; I know I can’t list them all. However, I realize caregivers are not just those we live with, but those who care for us in any capacity. While I had no at-home support, my medical and support team made me feel special and rallied behind me — reminding me that I was never alone.
Who were your caregivers during cancer diagnosis, treatment, and beyond?
Feel free to share how you were/are taken care of throughout your illness. I would like to hear about this.