The first time I felt really different from other patients was when I sat in the waiting room to meet my radiation oncologist for the first time. The receptionist handed me a packet of intake forms that asked, yet again, whether I had pain, was feeling anxious, or was having trouble sleeping, among myriad other details. It seemed almost laughable. I had just learned yesterday from my medical oncologist how serious my diagnosis was and that I was in for the whole barrage of cancer treatment’s greatest hits: chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. Of course I was anxious!
But this form included a question that was new to me: Who did I live with to help take care of me? I laughed to my friend Sara, who was sitting with me, as I wrote “Cora (my dog)” on the form. I distinctly recall feeling a surge of anger. The question seemed to imply that this was going to be something I could not do on my own. It felt like an ominous threat and made me even more anxious.
I acknowledge that many people face cancer while being full time caretakers. My father, who spent his last year in a memory care community due to advanced dementia and Parkinson’s, died in the months before I was diagnosed. Overseeing his care while spending every other weekend for four months incapacitated by chemotherapy, or unable to drive following surgery, would have added a whole other level of feeling overwhelmed. And those who care for children while undergoing cancer treatment have to confront their disease while providing a sense of normalcy for kids who probably don’t understand why their schedules are off and their parent doesn’t feel like normal.
But enduring cancer treatment without a partner or family presented its own set of challenges. I want to share my experience–not only how I got through it but also how lonely it was–to help others facing the same thing. Like many single people, I am used to being independent and actually revel in it. But being sick and on your own is a whole different thing.
The reality of how hard it was going to be sank in the weekend after my first chemotherapy infusion. I had chemo on Thursdays, so Saturday and Sunday were the days I felt the worst. I was sitting in my favorite chair that first post-chemo Saturday, feeling the aches from Neulasta for the first time, with a deep sense of being unwell in a way I had not yet experienced. Dogs are often incredibly empathetic to the people around them. Cora is no exception. She leaned up against me, which is her command for me to pet her. She then proceeded to puke up her breakfast on the area rug next to my chair–even though the hardwood floor was a foot away.
At that moment, with my body hurting in a frightening new way, I realized I was alone in this experience. Of course, every patient is the only one who truly experiences the medical interventions that hopefully will save their lives, but I was now on my own for things I had taken for granted when I was well. I sat in my chair, petting my dog–who continued to want attention after relieving herself of her most recent meal–and cried. And then I cleaned up her vomit. And I felt very, very isolated.
I had to learn to ask for help in ways that were foreign to me. After that first weekend, I would ask friends to come and stay with me most of my post-chemo weekends. I came to refer to these visits as my friends “chemo-sitting” me. But it wasn’t about having people wait on me–it was about not having that frightening feeling that I am on my own.
I wanted my friends there because with cancer, and especially chemo, comes a vigilance about staying away from people who could get you sick. I was very mindful that I needed to be on high alert for anyone with a sniffle, so I carefully limited my exposure to crowds. Censoring every outing brings a profound sense of estrangement from everyday life, and it was important for me to feel connected to the world even if I couldn’t go out with my friends.
I went through chemo from November to February, which coincided with the first Thanksgiving and Christmas after both my parents had died. I had to figure out how to manage the holidays, which were already going to be hard given the need to protect my health. My friends Nino and Michael came down from LA for Thanksgiving. We all love to cook, and I love to host dinner parties, but that year we decided to do what we dubbed “A Whole Foods Thanksgiving.” I made up for essentially doing takeout for the holiday by setting the table with the good stuff. Celebrating the holidays, even without my usual flair, was important to my overall well-being.
I learned that letting people help me when I was sick let them be of service, which is really a very special thing. We all want to make it better when someone we love is suffering. Unfortunately, for someone who is sick, there is no Madame Pomfrey with a wand who can make it better. I let my friends and family into my illness by letting them see first hand how miserable and boring getting through cancer can be. Cancer treatment is monotonous, and by having my friends around me, it was more endurable. I encourage anyone facing the shit storm that is cancer to let other people help. It is the only thing they can do.
Cora may have been the only one at home with me every day, but I am profoundly grateful to the community that surrounded me when I was sick. Once I let them in, I felt a lot less alone.