Cancer and COVID-19 : My family’s story & tips on coping when your partner is ill
From the moment you get the news, whether it is in a doctor’s office, at the specialist, or on the phone, your life is going to change.
For us, this was the second time we had sat in the office of the oncologist to hear the news. My husband was only 38 when he was first diagnosed. Within a week of finding out he was in surgery, then chemo to ‘finish the job’. He recovered fairly well as far a chemo goes. The odds of it spreading were only 4%.
1 year almost to the day, and 2 days before his 40 th birthday, with the routine CT, bloods and ultrasound completed, we sat again in the oncologist’s office nervous, as always when we were in there, but expecting good news all the same.
The oncologist greeted us warmly, how have you been? “Fairly good” my husband replied, “But my gland feels a bit swollen in my leg”. Ok, he said, lets look at the test results.
There is a look when a specialist knows it’s not good news. A shuffle, a twitch of the corner of the mouth, a distinctive sound “hmm”. My husband looked at me and we knew in that moment without even hearing the words that it had spread.
The cancer was in his abdominal lymph node. Surgery wasn’t an option. Radiation wasn’t an option. Chemo was going to be aggressive this time. Three rounds, three weeks per round. He would lose his hair. We would have to tell our children.
For us this also happened to be 4 days before the Covid-19 restrictions came into effect. We would be housebound, only leaving to drop him at the door of the hospital, then to pick him up after the treatment each day. The risk for him if he contracted corona virus was high.
I had to figure out how to work from home, how to home school 3 children and look after my husband. The word self-care felt like a far away dream like unicorns and magic. It took me a few days and a lot of sleepless nights to get my head around it all. When I did there were a few key things that I did and learnt, that I want to pass on for the next person who goes through this and
doesn’t know where to start.
You may feel a lot of different emotions – the song ‘Four Seasons in one Day’ plays in my head when I think about the first few weeks after we got our news. I would go from feeling hopeful one moment to proactive the next reading everything I could, to total despair thinking of what could be if the treatment didn’t’ work. I have discovered that this is very NORMAL. Your partner is the one going through the illness and the treatment, but you are very much in the middle of it all too. The illness is not entirely owned by the sufferer. It is totally fine to ‘feel all the feels’.
People will tell you to be strong – this is ALWAYS said with love but sometimes you may not feel like being strong and sometimes you may not be able to be strong. It is a very stressful time and as much as you may want to be strong, some days will be harder than others. On those days its ok to cry or feel despondent but it’s also important to remember to look after yourself and check in on yourself. This might be the time to phone a friend or family member and talk it out.
People will want to help you – When we hear about someone in our community who has been dealt a cruel hand, we want to help them. The way you feel when this happens to other people is how people feel about YOU right now. I personally struggled with this A LOT. I am a very independent person and I had to keep reminding myself that this is what I would do for others if they were in the same situation, it did not make me weak, it did not mean that I wasn’t coping. You may not know what you need but luckily there are always those people who are the doers. The ones that organise the meal rosters, that bring you shopping even when you didn’t ask for it, that drop flowers at your door, or a hot drink, or a bottle of wine. Then there are the others that will check in on you, a phone call, a text, they may send you a funny meme, all of this is their way of telling you they are thinking of you.
And if you do know what you need – hallelujah! Now ask for it! The thing that I would have wanted is for someone to look after my children so I could sit with my husband through some of his treatments. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a possibility for us because of the timing with coronavirus, but that is perhaps one thing you could ask for help with. Get used to saying “Yes please”.
A psychologist can help you – speaking to a psychologist may be helpful for you to work through your feelings and to feel supported by a qualified health care practitioner. Psychologists can assist also in strategies for stress management to support you and your partner through the difficult time. We sought out a fantastic psych who initially gave us information on the best way to tell our children and to help us come to terms with the shock of the news, then later to have someone to check in on how we were all coping from week to week.
You may need to ‘get your affairs in order’ – is might be one of the hardest things you will have to do. Its heart-breaking and scary but it’s also practical. My husband and I call it ‘doom-casting’ – the forecasting of doom! It might sound morbid to plan for worst case scenario but as I said, it is practical, and I am a practical person. Do you know all your partners computer passwords? Is your name on your accounts, your bills, utilities? An old superannuation fund still showing the in-laws as benefactors? These are the things you may want to have a look at. These are not issues that you will want to or perhaps, be able to,
manage if your partners health declines suddenly.
Taking time -So this is where that magical unicorn known as self-care begins. This doesn’t mean you have to allocate yourself an hour a day to work on you. You don’t have to journal write, or do three exercise classes a week, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. But you do need to keep breathing and functioning. This might mean that you sit down for a few minutes and close your eyes, it might mean you go and stand in your backyard or on your balcony and breathe. It might mean you turn up the music and have a shower and block everything else out. You need to take that time.
Take your supplements – Because I am a naturopath and nutritionist, I also need to add this in! What I don’t want at the end of this is to be burnt out. I don’t want my hair to fall out, I don’t want the stress to show on my face for the rest of my life and I don’t want to be diagnosed with PTSD. Because of this I take my supplements twice a day. A methyl B vitamin in the morning for energy and stress support. A herbal calming tablet to support my nervous system and adrenal glands, vitamin C as an antioxidant to counteract the effect of the stress on my cells and a probiotic to keep my gut health in check. And at night magnesium to relax my muscles and help ease me into a comfortable sleep.
I don’t believe in the saying ‘everything happens for a reason’. Sometimes really horrible things happen and there is just no reason, no lesson to be learned.
What I do have is a reminder to love freely and tell people how much they mean to you, and I have gratitude. Gratitude for my friends, my family and my community who give me the faith to believe we will get through this and the support to face whatever comes next.
Kimberley Taylor – Integrative Naturopath & Nutritionist