Caring Currents

Cancer and the Single Patient: A Special Need for Help

Last updated: Aug 13, 2008

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Last week I spent a lot of time with a close friend who's undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer. I didn't do a lot -- in fact, I feel terrible about how little I was able to do. But I did go with her to meet with the surgeon to prepare for surgery, and took notes about the complicated procedures involved. And I visited her in the hospital each day, bringing gossip magazines and smoothies and picking up whatever she needed on the way.

But as I left each evening -- as late after visiting hours ended as the staff would let me stay -- I couldn't help but think about how lonely that little space must feel once the staff pulled the curtains and turned off the lights. And how different it is for a single person to battle cancer than it is for someone with a devoted partner.

When my dad was sick with esophageal cancer six years ago, my stepmom was with him every step of the way. When he had to stay overnight in the hospital, she stayed, too, sleeping in a cot beside his bed. Watching my friend struggle to learn how to empty her drains and adjust the dosage of her lidocaine pain pump -- because there wasn't going to be anyone to help her with them when she got home -- just broke my heart.

All of us who find ourselves in the role of helping a loved one fight cancer need to be more aware of how much bigger the need is for someone who doesn't have a partner. And step in to help as best we can.

Chicken soup? Absolutely. And muffins, pasta, and every other dish you can think of, too. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Here are some other things those of us who care can do:

  • Attend pre-surgery appointments so we're there for the tears when our loved one looks at before-and-after photos.
  • Water the plants, feed the pets, and pick up the papers while the person we're caring for is in the hospital.
  • Familiarize ourselves with medication dosages and other instructions so we can help when the person with cancer becomes overwhelmed.

Remember, though, that we're all proud, and single folks tend to be proudest of all, perhaps out of a fear of being seen as lonely or pitiable. So tread lightly, but don't take "no" easily -- be aware that your parent or loved one may insist she doesn't need help when actually she'd really appreciate it. One way to overcome this barrier: Picture all the aspects of cancer that you'd find frightening or worrisome, and ask yourself, would you want to be experiencing these moments alone? Then gently overrule your parent by saying, "I know you don't need help with this, but I can't stand to think of you there by yourself; I want to go with you."

Don't begin to believe you can provide all the support yourself, though. That's impossible, and you'll doom yourself to failure -- and loads of guilt -- if you try. Instead, think of anyone and everyone who's worried about your parent, wishes her well, and wants to help. This is your support team. (Be creative; there are more folks out there than you might think of at first. That gabby neighbor who's always stopping you in front of your mom's house? Bet she'd love to cook a casserole every Tuesday.) Then marshal those folks and assign tasks. Here's how to get started.

Remember, if other people are handling the practical tasks, it frees you up to be the emotional support your parent or loved one really needs.

Image by Flickr user Tanjila used under the Creative Commons Attribution license.