A couple weeks ago, a Fat Cyclist reader emailed me, telling me his mom had breast cancer and was about to start treatment. “Any advice or help is appreciated,” he said.
So I started listing a few ideas. Before long, I realized that this, in fact, is something I could probably write a pretty good book on now. One that could do a lot of people a lot of good.
The thing is, most of what I have learned I got the hard way. So, in the hope that someone might remember this and pass it along at some point, I’m going to start recording some of my ideas on taking care of a loved one with cancer.
This is the list — stuff that immediately popped into my head — I sent to the reader, so I’m referring to his mom throughout. Of course, all of this applies just as well to any loved one, of either gender.
And of course this list is hardly inclusive, and the numbering isn’t by rank or chronology; it’s just the order the thoughts occurred to me.
I have a feeling this is probably the first in a series.
1. Be proactive on the hair. When the time’s right, ask her if she’d rather have a wig, scarves, or knitted caps or baseball caps. And then be prepared for that answer to change mid-course (Susan thought she’d want a wig, but in practice never used it — too heavy, hot, and itchy). If it’s a wig, take her wig shopping before her hair comes out. If caps, pick some out for her. If scarves, order a bunch. And then tell her that when her hair starts coming out that if she wants to get rid of it before it gets “patchy,” that you’d be more than happy to do that for her. Treat it as a “taking charge” moment; she’s getting rid of the hair before it becomes a nuisance (and if you don’t shave it off, it will become a nuisance as it starts falling off in big batches — trust me, it’s much more distressing to have it fall out on your clothes than to take steps and do it yourself).
2. Buy some pill containers and a notebook. Your mom’s going to get “chemo brain” and won’t have an easy time remembering what she took and when. So divvy out the pills into the little containers and draw up a grid on the notebook pages: hours going down rows, pill types for columns. Maybe get her something that reminds here when to take what (at first I set recurring appointments on my wife’s iPhone). In other words, work out a system that makes it easy for your mom to take the pills, and for whoever’s with her to track what she took and when.
3. Get ready to make some adjustments for comfort. Bright lights might become painful, so be ready to get heavier curtains. Food might become altogether distasteful, so get ready to buy some Ensure or something else easy and fast to get down.
4. Get ready to run interference. Lots of friends and family might want to come by to be helpful. Your mom will sometimes not be in the mood to see anyone at all. Be ready to block people at the door, even if they want to see her “just for a minute.”
5. Learn to sit still. When your mom is having treatment — chemo or radiation — she’s going to be tired and won’t be able to do much. When you visit, the temptation will be to run around the house and do errands and stuff. That’s OK sometimes. Make sure, though, you also just hang out, sitting there with her, either talking or watching a show or reading a book while she sleeps. For Susan at least, having someone present and comfortable with her — even when she was exhausted and unable to do anything — meant more than having a clean house / stocked fridge.
6. When your mom says this sucks, agree with her.
7. Realize that the last chemo is not the finish line. She’s going to feel beaten down and crappy for at least a couple months after the last chemo. Be ready to have the worst days be shortly after the last chemo, and for it to take a while for her to start feeling better.
8. Once the physical manifestations of the chemo are gone, look for signs of depression. It’s incredibly common. Be ready to treat those symptoms as a chemical, medical problem, as well as an emotional one. She’s been put through the wringer in every possible way.
I know I am not the only one who has taken care of a loved one with cancer. What advice would you give to someone who’s about to take care of someone starting treatment?