Walking With Others on Their Cancer Journeys

As a pancreatic cancer survivor, I realized how important it is to help others who are in the throes of their cancer experience.

One of my favorite quotes is Ram Dass’“We’re all just walking each other home.” In those seven short words, he says it all.

Walking with others on their cancer journeys is one way we can offer hope to them. Having survived pancreatic cancer, a type many consider a death sentence, I must do this.

During the heat of treatments, make no mistake, life is harder than hard. Weeks blend together into a thick goop. We hope against hope we will make it, while grappling with our gripping fear our life is about to get cut short. The physical and mental exhaustion are indescribable. This is not to mention the unending angst our caregivers bear on our behalf.

Most people who haven’t faced cancer have little idea how to walk with someone who is facing it. Those of us who have been there done that and gotten the T-shirt are often stuck too. We want to do something to comfort them and to ease their pain, but we often find ourselves unable to figure out what to do. Let alone what to say. Walking with them seems too little too late, much like the fire department showing up a month after the fire.

So how do we walk with those facing cancer (and their courageous caregivers)?

My advice is this: be present. It’s not so much about doing, but rather it’s about being available to take a 3 a.m. phone call. It can be soothing for them to be able to lean into a good friend for support.

Speak when spoken to. Let them drive the conversation. Everyone is different — one person may want to talk about their cancer with all its horrendous detail, while someone else cowers under a table refusing to even say the C-word out loud.

Hear their pain. Pain from cancer comes in many forms. There is physical pain that can be eased by medications, but there is also the unfathomable emotional pain. In my experience, this nonphysical pain is much harder to ease. Many clinics have counselors on staff who are trained in dealing with cancer-induced emotional pain. While so many people experience this type of pain throughout their life, some call these life regrets, cancer amps it up. Of course, there is also the spiritual pain. Is this all there is or is there something after this? Or do I just return to the cosmos? Often a pastor, rabbi, imam or perhaps a spiritual director can be called upon to console a person about their spiritual pain. It's important to hear a person’s pain, but let trained professionals address it.

Be aware of their precarious emotional state. Cancer tears down even the Navy Seals among us. On the surface, someone can appear to be non-plussed by their cancer, but on the inside gripping fear may dog them day and night. Sleep, when it comes, may not last long. While we may not admit it, facing the end of our life is harrowing. We hope and pray we will make it, but we aren’t putting any money on it. Some readily accept their mortality when facing cancer, while others refuse. Many decline hospice care, but it can help them live out the best life they can.

Do what needs to be done. Don’t sit on the sidelines waiting to be asked to help. Often someone facing cancer is so overwhelmed they lose track of what they need. Or worse, they won’t admit they need anything. Doing what needs to be done can be as simple as offering them a hug; sitting with them during an hours-long chemo session; or watching their kids while they are there; making them a meal; mowing their lawn. These are just a few of the many things we can do without being asked.

The cancer journey complicates a person’s life in ways that can’t be described. Everything happens either at hyper-time with overlapping office visits, chemo and radiation sessions, with perhaps a surgery thrown into the mix, or things crawl along with extended recovery times from chemo, delayed test results, or long waits for an insurance approval.

Having someone walk alongside them can offer a respite from the onslaught of cancer. But figuring out how to walk with someone can be challenging. With each person being so different there is no single approach to it. The best we can do is be present, speak when spoken to, hear their pain, be aware of their precarious emotional state, and most of all step up and do what needs to be done.

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