Thoughts of a Cancer Caregiver

On July 30th, 2010, after several days of testing at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN,  Deb, my wife of 38 years, was diagnosed with metastatic leiomyosarcoma.  She and our family have been sustained by the prayers of thousands of people from all over the world.  She bravely battles each and every day, and miraculously her journey continues.

I can’t and won’t speak for Deb.  She has cancer and I do not (as far as I know).  I can, however, tell you what I, as her caregiver, have learned about cancer and human nature since Deb’s journey began.  Whether or not cancer has affected your family, my experience may be helpful.

As a lay person, never offer a prognosis. One person’s cancer is not another person’s cancer.  Lymphoma is not sarcoma.  Breast cancer isn’t the same as pancreatic cancer.  The types of cancer and iterations of severity are almost infinite.  As far as a prognosis is concerned, where physicians are cautious, laymen fearlessly tread.  When friends found out about Deb’s cancer some of them said, “Don’t worry, my mother in law had cancer twenty years ago and she’s still alive.”  Others wanted to know how many days or months Deb had to live.  Almost without exception, none of them had any idea what they were talking about.

Two things you should say to someone who has cancer. When you find out someone has cancer there are only two things you should say to them:  First, sincerely tell them you are sorry.  Second, if you’re a believer and the patient is a religious person, tell them that you will be praying for them.  If you’re not a religious person, skip the second step.  Above all, don’t tell a believer that your “thoughts are with them.”  To a believer, your kind thoughts have no meaning.  The believer wants you to intercede for him through prayer to bring out the “heavy artillery in healing power”, namely God himself.

Don’t prescribe a cure for the patient. No matter how well-meaning you are or how sure you are that you think you know a cure for cancer, stay silent.  Maybe you know someone who claims that they beat cancer by drinking a certain type of tea, or eating specific nuts or fruits.  When you tell the family of a cancer patient about your proposed “cure”, you put them in a difficult position.  If they don’t try your “cure” they feel that they have offended you.  If they try your cure and it doesn’t work, you’ll feel that you let them down.  There are 13,600,000 Google responses to “cure for cancer.”  Let the physicians make the diagnosis.  Physicians will often allow you to take certain herbs or other foods, as long as they don’t think it will cause harm, but the use of these various herbs is a decision between the patent, his family, and the physician.

My thoughts about the Mayo Clinic: At the Mayo Clinic they treat really sick people; no one goes to the Mayo Clinic for a hang nail.  Since her diagnosis, my wife has been under the care of Mayo Clinic physicians in Rochester, Minnesota.  To a man (and woman) the employees of the Mayo Clinic are so caring and nurturing that it is almost unbelievable.  From the doorman to the surgeon, they are exemplary people.  I often tell my friends, “The people at the Mayo Clinic are the most kind and caring people in the world that I never want to see again.”

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