“Make sure you look after yourself.” ~My mum
“You can’t look after Jen if you don’t look after yourself.” ~Also my mum.
“Stay Strong.” ~ Everyone else.
You’ll hear and see ‘stay strong’ the most because it’s quick and easy to say and write in cards with little to no effort required by the person saying it. But it’s right. You do need to stay strong.
You need to do stuff for your mind and body to both take your thoughts off what’s happening but also to remain healthy. So does your partner.
As far as it goes, your partner has a whole lot more healing to do than you, but you have a similar level of self-care to be staying on top of although how you go about it will be slightly different. Your partner only needs to focus on her own self-care, you need to focus on yours and hers.
It follows that the more you do to look after yourself, the more planning and the more coping mechanisms you have in place before, during and after your partner’s treatment, the less time you will need to recover and heal.
It feels strange to be talking about your healing when it’s not you being treated, but the treatment your partner has will impact you in negative ways. Be it emotional, physical or spiritual, you’re going to be taking a hit.
During treatment we became focused, utterly fixated if I’m honest, on just getting through it in one piece. Our lives revolved around cancer and cancer treatment to the exclusion of almost everything else. Jen stopped work and my output at work – when I wasn’t with Jen at an appointment – took a serious dive.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was taking a massive toll on my mental and physical health. It wasn’t until Jen’s main treatments had ended and my father had died that I was really able to let my guard down and take personal stock of myself. I was a complete mess. Jen was too.
End to end – that is, from diagnosis to final radiotherapy session – the treatment took a year, give or take. That doesn’t include the physiotherapy, Jen’s strength building and steady recovery or any of the other myriad changes we made in our lives. It might take you a longer time or a shorter one – it really depends on your partner’s condition and treatments. But it will take time.
Don’t use drugs (including alcohol) and, if you do smoke, now would be a good time to quit. Nothing says insufferable prick quite like someone smoking outside the oncology wing of a hospital. Vaping, patches, lozenges or nicotine sprays are a decent investment/compromise. Also, as an ex-smoker (smugly, I quit years and years before Jen’s diagnosis), I can tell you hands down who in the waiting room smokes and who doesn’t. Because they stink. I could even tell you how recently they smoked and how often they wash their hands. As can every other person in that room. And every single one of them either resents or pities a smoker. Cancer is life’s way of saying smoking’s not for you. Just quit.
So, avoid drugs and, if you’re going to do something to excess, try to make it something healthy. Exercise is a good choice, though in my experience I was always too tired holding down my day job to do much in this regard. I was also guilty of stress eating, which caused me to pile on a couple of unwanted stones. Weight I’m slowly working off to this day.
If you can, try to do something healthy 75% of whatever free time you get. Alternatives to healthy are neutral activities – gaming (but not gambling) and reading are good options – stuff that’s sedentary and allows you to physically recuperate while keeping your mind off the ‘what ifs’. Sleep’s a good one too, so long as it doesn’t mess with your circadian rhythms too much.
Don’t hesitate to see your doctor if it’s getting too much. I broke a couple of times before I sought help, largely because I’m not as self-aware as I could be but also because that shit creeps up on you incrementally. Each increment is shrugged off as minor but compounds with the others into a much deeper schism.
Between the three main treatments – chemo, surgery and radio, something always happened that prevented Jen and me from properly resting – between chemo and surgery, Jen’s mum nearly died, so we spent a lot of time around hospitals and supporting her father (the irony wasn’t lost on me), between surgery and radiotherapy, my father died.
The first time I broke, my boss asked me an innocuous question about some work I’d done and I quit my job of four years on the spot. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and my employer recognised I was breaking down. My doctor signed me off for a short while and my rash resignation wasn’t accepted. That’s when Jen’s mother became ill. Which is why it’s so important to have an open, running and honest dialogue with your employer. Better yet, don’t do what I did and ignore the buildup of issues. Have useful coping mechanisms in place from the outset.
The second time I ‘broke’ was after my father died I realised that I was only getting a few hours sleep a night – this time though I nipped it in the bud and approached my doctor. He diagnosed depression and exhaustion and medicated me accordingly. It took months for me to come out of the physical, emotional and mental tailspin and I needed to take a long time off work as a result. Not so much nipping it in the bud then, more letting it go on until it became a serious problem. But that’s the beauty of hindsight I guess.
Another thing to consider is any existing health issue(s) you might have and specifically how important it is to not neglect it. I’ve had a chronic back problem for about 15 years now and I also let that deteriorate through lack of exercise. Consequently I’m having to have physio and increased medication to try and get it back to post-diagnosis levels.
Try to maintain a positive mental attitude. That doesn’t mean you have to be happy and smiling all the time. Far from it. But when you’re confronted with a problem, take steps to solve it. If you can’t, ask for help from someone who can. Sometimes the only way you can move a problem forwards is to get help. After all, you’re not administering chemotherapy medicine or performing surgery. The solutions you and your partner need are myriad and you simply cannot address them all yourself. In fact, one of your jobs is to identify issues you can’t solve and get the relevant help – whether it be for you or your partner.
A few simple rules:
Recognise that you need time and space to recover.
Always, ALWAYS accept help when it’s offered. This is more difficult than it sounds for some people – particularly the fiercely independent – remember that they WANT to help. Letting them will help them too!
Unless you’re fastidiously tidy by nature, employ a cleaner (if you can comfortably afford it) or have a family member help around the house for a few hours a week. Seriously. This cannot be underestimated. When you’re staring down the barrel of two weeks of caring for your partner while she recovers for the next bout of chemo, you won’t give a shit about whether the bins have been done. Then things will start to slide and, once they start sliding, things will get on top of you.
Never turn up an opportunity to rest.
If you feel the need to stress eat (like I did), try to binge on healthy food – it’s surprising how good you feel, both in terms of meeting the urge to binge but also for making a positive choice.
Exercise when you can but don’t overdo it – yoga is particularly good. If you have an intense workout schedule, you’re probably going to need to dial it back a bit.
If you need a non-healthy escape, consider computer games, movies, reading, music and meditation – feeding your mind is a positive thing to do. Personally, I took great solace from my games console and playing it was one of the few times I was able to zone out and not think about the important stuff.
Seek help from professionals and use resources if or when they are offered. Services like Macmillan, Steps to Change (counselling) and so forth can go a long way to helping get YOU through the ordeal.
Other things that can help include meditation, massage, warm baths (seriously) and even things like ordering your groceries online. If you can’t cope with your day to day load, find ways to drop things that are less of a priority. Also consider reduced hours or lighter duties at work if that kind of flexibility is available. If you’re not sure, speak to your line manager.
Oh yeah, if it’s been a while since you did anything athletic, ease yourself in gently – start at the bottom rung of the fitness ladder and work your way up. I’d been doing some treadmill walks and thought I’d got quite fit, then played badminton for an hour and spent the following week recovering and in pain.
And don’t, don’t, DON’T forget your coping strategies!