Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Canada, killing more people than the next top 3 cancers combined (breast, prostate and colorectal). In 2013, a total of 20,200 Canadians will die of lung cancer.
Sadly my father will become part of this statistic sooner rather than later. He is currently in a palliative care ward at a hospital waiting to die. It sounds harsh but it’s true. He’s lost his will to live and it’s heartbreaking to watch. All the love, care and support in the world will not make him better because he has lost that drive to keep going.
While my dad is dealing with lung cancer, my step-father is dealing with prostate cancer that has metastasized to his bones. The difference between the two of them is their fight for survival. That driving instinct to do whatever it takes to keep going. Some people have it and some people don’t and you can’t do anything to change it; it needs to come deep from within.
Cancer is an ugly thing to watch. It’s exhausting on so many levels…from the doctors’ visits to the chemo, to the radiation and medications, to the worry, the pain, the heartache and anguish, to setting up healthcare and preparing for the end. It can take a huge toll on everyone.
During this time of fear, frustration and upheaval, it’s important to take care of yourself. I am guilty of not doing this and I have started to take steps to rectify it. One of the best things I’ve done is to attend a weekly cancer support group. It’s not just for people with cancer; it’s also for those who are caring for people with cancer. It’s a place where you can have frank discussions, ask hard questions and get honest answers from the people who are going through it at all levels and all stages. It’s a place where we share best practices based on experience and where we all feel safe to just let go.
During one of our sessions a gentleman who has cancer acknowledged the fact that everyone asks how the person with cancer is doing but rarely asks how the primary caretaker is doing. He recognized the fact that it is extremely difficult for caregivers and loved ones to watch and worry and fret about the patient. He looked lovingly at his wife when he said this and I cried because I felt exactly what he was talking about. And I could see and feel the love between them; he was more worried about her than he was for himself.
It’s important to have open and frank dialogues during times of illness and uncertainty. There is so much fear and hushed voices when talking about illness and cancer. Talking about it will shine light on the situation; it will give you strength to fight together as a unified team.
When the end is inevitable and palliative care is looming, there is another question that is imperative for the palliative care team to ask. ”What do I need to know about you as a person to give you the best care possible?” This is a question that came out of a study funded by the Canadian Cancer Society; the study was led by Dr Harvey Max Chochinov, a world-renowned expert in palliative care.
In the last weeks and days of a patient’s life, palliative care teams manage pain and other physical symptoms with the best medicine available. But when it comes to patients’ emotional and psychological states, the study shows that patients who are asked this one simple question may receive more empathy from their caregivers, helping patients to spend the last days of life with dignity.
I have witnessed this with my dad. He won’t eat the hospital food and frankly I don’t blame him. I try a bite and say “Mmm, mmm, that’s good” while rubbing my belly when in fact I want to spit it out! I wrote on a whiteboard in his room that he likes peanut butter and jam sandwiches (which I make and leave wrapped up next to him), cold Ensure that’s labeled with his name in the fridge, plus Fibre1 with bananas which I also have next to his bed. He cannot get these things for himself and needs help to prepare them. However, whenever I go in to the hospital there are different nurses and different shifts and all the food is still sitting there… So the hospital food gets brought to him and taken away untouched and the nurses complain that he doesn’t eat and I say, “Did you read the whiteboard?” It’s a frustrating situation and one that I’ll keep on top of for my dad’s sake.
Despite the frustrations, there are many positive and supportive ways to incorporate wellness into your routine while dealing with stress:
• Doing meditation and restorative yoga will get the nervous system to relax. Even if it’s deep breathing at your desk for five minutes, it all helps.
• Going to the gym and working within your limits gets your endorphins going. Can’t get to a gym? Go for a brisk walk.
• Eating well. You need foods to support and nourish your body especially through times of stress. It’s easy to reach for those comfort foods like cakes, cookies and empty carbohydrates that make you feel better short term, but pack on the weight long term and make you feel sluggish and tired.
• Try to sleep 8-9 hours a night. If you can’t get to sleep, herbal teas containing chamomile, lavender, passion flower or kava are all good options for calming the nervous system and drifting off to sleep. There are also natural sleep remedies at your local health food store.
• Talk about it. Either at a support group, to a professional or to a friend. Shouldering the burden by yourself only makes that burden heavier.
Death and dying are an inevitable part of life. When cancer and other illnesses mark that end of life passage, step back, take a deep breath and take care of yourself as well as your loved one.