A Disease That Will Affect 1 Out of 8 Women…
Last night, I attended the UConn v Baylor Women’s basketball game in Hartford. It was an exciting game between the #1 Baylor and the #3 UConn, from beginning to end. It was my youngest son’s first big sporting event to experience. And it was also part of the Play4Kay Initiative, a cooperative effort among sports coaches, teams and fans to raise money for breast cancer awareness, research and support for patients and their families. The initiative is named after Kay Yow, the former head coach of the North Carolina State women’s basketball team, who battled breast cancer from 1987 until her death in 2009.
Invasive breast cancer will affect 1 out of 8 women over the course of a lifetime. Look around you at home, school or work. Count how many women and girls you see, then divide that by 8. That’s how many women in that room are likely to hear the words, “We found a little bit of cancer…” during their lifetime. Chances are, some of them are in treatment, or are cancer survivors, and you don’t even know it — that’s how many women will get a breast cancer diagnosis over time.
I was first diagnosed in 2009. After three surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and long-term drug therapy, and through the prayers and supports of my friends and family, I have been breast cancer free for the past three years. I’d like to share ten things that people did for me and my family, which made such an impact on me, as I went through treatment.
#1. Cook a family meal.
Early in my chemo treatment, a co-worker and breast cancer survivor called to ask if there was anything I needed. I let her know that my husband was doing a yeoman’s job, parenting, chaffeuring me to appointments, caring for me, cooking, cleaning, going to school and doing everything else involved in running a family. I knew he wouldn’t ask for any help. So I asked her to just prepare one meal for him that week.
My friend never brought over that meal.
No, instead, she organized a caravan of food that kept us fed and focused on treatment for the next three months. I cannot convey to you all how much of a blessing that was for us. I still tear up thinking about it.
Tip for all you cooks (and “non” cooks!): If you think, “I just cook ordinary stuff — I couldn’t do that!” — ordinary dinner is what a family in cancer treatment is wanting! Think about these ideas:
- Steamed hotdogs, a package of buns, prepared boxed mac-n-cheese and a fruit basket;
- A pan of lasagna, a loaf of store-baked Italian bread and a bowl of salad;
- Franks-n-beans, biscuits and a store platter of carrot and celery sticks and dip;
- Fried chicken (even store prepared), frozen mashed potatoes, and a zipper-bag with cut up broccoli — include re-heating directions (taped to each container).
#2. Give a hat or scarf.
Before I went on medical leave, I was blessed every day with a little gift bag on my desk. My crafty co-workers crocheted little beanies and fancier hats for me; others left pretty scarves or “girly” ball caps. As they knew I wasn’t going the wig route, these were such thoughtful gifts (and were usually left without cards). I suspect someone was organizing the “scarf-a-day” initiative (!), but will never know.
Tips for gift-givers:
- Pretty, silky scarves slip off a bald head, and your friend might feel bad about telling you so. Knits or cotton scarves stay put.
- If you buy the wide scarves that people wear around their necks or as mini-shawls, it gives the patient more flexibility in wrapping (I used to like to make mine into turbans — requiring a wider, longer scarf than bandanna size).
#3. Call. Please.
Sometimes people mistakenly think that they need to “leave you alone” so “you can heal.” Sometimes even your boss will tell folks not to “bother” you. Being home when you are used to working can be an adjustment, and boredom, loneliness and fatigue can wear on you after awhile. Please call! It’s good for body, mind and spirit, and the patient’s recovery, to be well-connected.
Tip: Most infusion rooms have wi-fi, and many patients spend the long mornings or days there connecting via electronics. Why not call during your friend’s chemo treatment? She might be sleepy because of the meds, but laughter and conversation go a long way to helping the healing process.
#4. Touch that baldie.
Of course, ask first.
Many people are afraid of cancer patients when their hair falls out (they won’t admit it, but people are afraid — and I can understand it). Interestingly, I felt worse when I was recovering from surgery, and had a full head of hair (and no one asked if I was feeling ok). Once my hair fell out, I really wasn’t feeling that bad — but looked so different, that it made people think I was sicker than I felt.
I hid my head for a long time, because I didn’t know how people would react. My youngest son was five, and it scared him at first. One day, my eldest son, then 22, asked if he could see my head. After I removed my scarf, he and and my 20-year-old asked if they could touch it. Of course, I said — it’s just my head. Once we got over that, it made me very happy when they would affectionately kiss my baldie (like some kind of living Blarney stone) as they passed by me.
#5. Let her come to work.
All right. This isn’t a little thing. It’s really big. But it shouldn’t be.
When I was in chemotherapy treatment, I could tell you, without a doubt, the three days per treatment cycle that I would need to be home. The remaining days of the 12 weeks, I was fit and able to come to work, without any risk to myself or my co-workers, and without any loss of performance.
When I was in radiation treatment, I needed to leave work an hour early to get to the radiation facility each day, for 36 treatment days. I went in an hour early to make it up.
Many employers navigate this period without a snag, and work out arrangements with the patient that work for everyone. But some are less progressive, and prefer the patient to “take time off.” Off course, if you prefer to take time off to focus on treatment, that is a personal decision — and I can understand that. I knew I needed to keep my mind busy to feel my best. I didn’t get that opportunity the way it could have happened.
If you are an employer, let your employee help you figure out the best arrangement. But honor her need to keep productive and connected to the workplace as part of her healing, if that is her preference.
#6. Invite her kids on an outing with your kids.
My teenage niece told my sister-in-law that when one person has cancer, the whole family has it. Cancer, and cancer treatment, is very hard on children in the family, especially if they are younger. They worry about mom dying, about being left alone, about whether or not they will have a birthday party next month, about how their friends will react to their mom’s bald head.
If you have children the same age, consider inviting your friend’s child to accompany you on an outing, or just to come over for a LEGO afternoon. One of my co-workers invited my then 5-year-old to come over to play Bakugan with her 7-year-old, listen to a read-aloud, and go for a hike around the block. It gave me a time to nap, but, more importantly, it gave him a chance to be carefree for a little while.
#7. Give the gift of a good book.
I did a lot of reading during my treatment, especially on days when I was too tired to do a lot.
One of my co-workers surprised me with a little book of daily reflections, which was an amazing and thoroughly appreciated gift, and a terrific way to start my day. My mother sent me a gift subscription to a gardening magazine, and I spent my medical leave time designing flower beds and thinking sunshine.
Tip: If you’re not sure what your friend likes to read, consider gift cards to a book store chain, which you can pick up just about anywhere you shop, nowadays. Even $5 can buy that spring garden or DIY magazine on the shelf.
#8. Read aloud to her.
Although I mostly felt well, there were some days when I didn’t feel well. At all. Cancer treatment is hard on a body, and on some bodies more than others.
My little boy missed his read-alouds on these days. But, being a wonderful boy, he would curl up next to me on the couch, tuck me in, and read to me. He would tell me he was going to read to me until I fell asleep. Which I would. He still talks about that, three years later. And I am still grateful for his love.
If you are a family member of a cancer patient, this can be a wonderful, “together” time for you both. No need to get fancy — read silly stuff, funny editorials, trashy magazines — something you can both get a laugh out of. Or, read peaceful, soothing verses from the Bible. The Book of Psalms is perfect for this — and King David certainly knew how to call out to God in times of trouble.
#9. Crochet a small afghan or prayer shawl.
I received a prayer shawl (a narrow afghan) from a co-worker that I kept over the back of my office chair, for when I was feeling a little under-the-weather. And I picked up a small afghan at the Patient Navigator’s office at the hospital where I was undergoing treatment. My little boy actually took comfort under this afghan when he sat with me in the evening — like a security blanket for a little boy who was too old for one, but really needed one just then.
Sometimes, cancer patients get a little fever after chemo, or have achy joints (especially if chemo causes a woman to go through menopause suddenly). A small blanket is a very useful, and inexpensive, gift that will definitely get used.
Tip for Crafters: If you are crafty, and want to “pay it forward,” consider making knit hats, afghans or scarves and donating them to your local cancer center. At mine, such donations are collected, tied with pretty pink ribbons, and kept in a basket at the Patient Navigator’s office right adjacent to the treatment office. Patients can take whatever they need, without charge. I got a lot of hats and other items there.
This should be the first thing on the list, but I wanted to leave it as my last words. Because prayer works for everything — “The effectual, fervent prayer of the righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16)
I know, without a doubt, that I was blessed by a mighty host of prayer warriors when I was ill. Prayer costs nothing. Anyone can do it. You don’t need fancy words or a special formula.
I am so grateful for all the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals that continue to treat me today, for my family, for their incredible strength in the face of all of it, and for friends who did whatever they could to be a support to me and my family.
Please follow my Pinterest board, “Life After Breast Cancer,” for more links and resources that I have found helpful on this little adventure.
I recently celebrated a birthday. It was my 51st calendar birthday, but my 3rd “pink” birthday:
Much love to all of you!
- Cancer researcher and advocate Dr. Susan Love, now after her own cancer treatment (boingboing.net)
- Cancer Patient’s Donation Jar Stolen From IHOP (fox2now.com)
- Researchers Need To Target The Unique Biology Of Triple-Negative Breast Cancer (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Prevention as cure: Confronting the environmental contributions to breast cancer (blogs.edf.org)
- Copper Depletion Therapy Keeps High-Risk Triple-Negative Breast Cancer At Bay (medicalnewstoday.com)