December 16, 2002
Caring: For Self and Others
Reverend Linda Yates
- I see dead people. I have to. I'm a minister and I seem to do an awful lot of funerals these days. I have also become a collector of dying people. It is an occupational hazard. However, when one is a minister with cancer, people suffering with this disease begin connecting with you because they think you will know some secret magic trick to living with this disease. Often they are referred to me by others who have come to know about me. They too are convinced that I have some arcane knowledge that will set their loved one free. Unfortunately I possess no such insight. I do, though, have some experience with living with this experience. That is to say, as a person whose primary professional role is that of caring for others and whose primary personal roles are that of mother and wife, I have some things to share around how to live with this disease while tending to the needs of other people.
- Prioritize prioritizing in your life.
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Take some real time to periodically assess what and who needs attention the most. It is easy enough to say but so few people actually take the time to do it. If you don't prioritize, tasks and needs are attended to on an ad hoc and usually emergent basis. Practically speaking, this means whoever screams the loudest gets the attention. Thus, if you are a non-prioritizing kind of person then there are probably days when it seems that everyone and everything in your life is screaming "Pay attention to me!!!" I usually spend a half hour at the beginning of the week giving some quiet careful thought about what needs to be attended to.
I can use the production of this article as a case study in how prioritizing works. Alexandra asked me in September to do it and I promised her that it would be done by the end of that month. It is now December as I write this article. It was a long month and there is a long story to go with it. I had some reconstructive surgery, (implants), in May which resulted in post-operative infections that periodically came and went. To make a long story as short as I can, by October I was getting very ill. I was very sure one of the implants was severely infected. One day I woke up, dragged myself out of bed and thought that if I didn't soon take care of the infection that I was going to be in big trouble and then who would take care of everybody, including me!!? I was becoming cranky with my kids and positively demonic with my husband.
Lesson No. 1 in terms of prioritizing - You Have To Put Your Own Needs First or the results could be catastrophic from a health point of view. As well, from a relational point of view, putting your needs last may seem noble and all that, but ultimately, filled with stress, you take it out on those you have put higher on your list. In other words, your loved ones pay a price no matter what. Remember, you have cancer, it is a costly disease emotionally. Therefore, you might as well do the thing that results in the greater good - improvement of your over all health. This can not be done, unless you decide to do it.
Plastic surgeons can become terribly attached to their creations and thus mine was hesitant to take out his implant. I decided to meet with him and told him that if he did not remove it, I would sterilize a crochet needle and hook the damn thing out myself. He took it out. He told me that I was right - it was badly infected and never would have healed on its own. That same day that I phoned the Clerk of Session of our churches and told her that I would need someone to fill in for a week. She was only too happy to comply. They had been very concerned with my apparent level of tiredness.
Lessons No. 2 and No. 3 - Work Can Wait, (and you can't do it well anyway if you are half dead with fatigue), and ask people for help. People want to help, believe me. They care about you and feel helpless with the whole cancer scenario. Asking them to help gives them a sense of control and contribution.
Finally, everything else in my life, besides my health, family and work, took a back seat. I let people know that. Thus, I kept Alexandra abreast of my health developments and let her know that this long- awaited article would be waited for some more. As I improved physically I began to take more off of the on hold list and put it onto the actively looking at it list. My priority list looked something like this.
- 1. My Health And Well Being - including time to eat well, rest well, take medication properly and on time, exercise well, pray well and indulge in a hobby.
2. The Health And Well Being Of My Immediate Family - (including the dog)
3. The health and well being of close family and friends.
4. The health and well being of those whom I have professional charge of.
5. My professional reputation and pride.
6. Other stuff - (like this article)
7. The reputation and pride of those professionals charged with my care (such as surgeons who are reluctant to remove their creations).
- So often, when I work with people living with cancer, I find that they seem to live with a list of priorities that is upside down to this. They inevitably become sicker, more exhausted and resentful of those whom they relate most intimately to. When one looks at a list like this some things become apparent and can help with decision making. For example, should I find that my professional duties are making the first two priorities suffer then I know it will be time to quit and go on disability. The bottom line in terms of caring for others is this - if it is impacting your health in a destructive way, then don't do it.
Be Realistic About the Possibility of Transformation
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A curious thing happens to those around a person when that person gets cancer; they are sure that suddenly the person will get it. I even find myself doing it, despite the fact that I know better. If someone is an alcoholic, those who love them think that now that they know they have cancer the alcoholic will stop drinking. Or perhaps someone is obsessed and preoccupied with work and getting ahead. When they get cancer, their friends and family are convinced that they will now relax and realize what is important in life, (i.e. family, health, God etc....). Maybe someone is materialistic and determined to show everyone how important they are by acquiring all things bigger and better.
Again, those who know them almost give a sigh of relief upon hearing they have cancer. Ah, they think, Now he will put aside those transitory things. Wrong, wrong and wrong. People tend to adjust to catastrophic news like a diagnosis of cancer by using the same coping skills that have seen them through life thus far. So, if drowning one's sorrows in the haze of alcohol has gotten one through the vicissitudes of life, then booze is probably going to continue to be a close companion.
That is not to say that change can't happen. I have seen it happen but it requires work, access to skilled helpers and a willingness to walk a new path in a situation that is rife with novelty. Not many of us are up to the challenge. Usually, such change happens when there is a lot to lose, for example, if a partner declares that they will leave unless the situation is altered. I am in the business of miracles and sometimes miracles do happen - but not often and never on our schedule. Miracles are on some kind of divine time and space trajectory which I do not understand so I do not count on them in my work. I deal with what is presented to me. Thus, if someone is highly strung and liable to freak out with the least bit of stimulus, then you can bet there will be lots of freaking out over a cancer diagnosis. If someone is articulate and thoughtful as a rule, then the diagnosis of cancer will probably be deeply thought about and a listening ear appreciated. In terms of caring for others with cancer when you yourself have cancer, you need to appreciate that since people tend to continue in whatever coping mechanism they are familiar with, their way will not necessarily be your way unless you too have the same coping mechanisms. Too often, survivors try to help others by encouraging (nagging?) them to do as they do. Our journeys are unique because our lives and our personalities are unique. Continuing in our most familiar coping modes also means that when we collect cancer people in our lives, as I do, we need to be realistic about the toll that some individuals can take on us. Some questions need to be asked about previous life experiences. For example, if someone has been clingy, needy and destructive throughout most of their life then they will likely be extremely so after a diagnosis of cancer. Clear boundaries around contact, time spent with and time thinking about such a person will need to be set and articulated. Ultimately, some people may need to be cut out of one's life if their influence becomes malignant on one's mental well being. This is particularly difficult to do if you are a caring person in a caring profession. However, again it may be the difference between remaining well and getting sicker. Cancer is a hard disease and sometimes requires hard decisions to be made.
You Can't Save Anybody From Cancer or Loneliness
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This seems like a simple enough statement but it is deceptively difficult to believe. After all, we wish someone would save us from cancer and loneliness. It is easy to project that possibility onto others, placing ourselves in the position of saviour. We may instinctively know that we can't save somebody from the ravages of cancer but we often think that we can save someone from being lonely. After all, we just have to be there, right? The old axiom that some can be lonely in a crowd is true. In my professional travels I visit shut ins and am always amazed at a how people cope with being by themselves, in different ways. I have come to believe that being lonely comes primarily from being uncomfortable with the company of oneself. In other words, the more comfortable we are looking within and liking what we see, the more likely we are to like being alone with ourselves. Bearing this in mind, it is easy then to understand that those who are extremely lonely are insatiable for company and no amount of time spent with them could ever be enough. Here again, we need to be realistic about what we can give and what we can achieve. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with reaching out and spending time with others. Humans crave to be within community and relationships - God made us that way. However, it is matter of degree and dependency.
Finally, in terms of the saving - it is important to remember that we dishonour others when we try to save them. Everyone has their own journey and to deny someone their own unique path is destructive. It is far more life giving to all concerned, to journey alongside for awhile, trusting in the Divine to guide us when we need direction. We also need to trust that sometimes we may be guided on differing paths and as such they may be necessarily divergent.
- To Conclude
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Successfully caring for others when living with cancer has four requirements. They are:
- 1) Prioritize prioritizing in your life.
2) Be realistic about the possibility, (or impossibility), of the transformation of others.
3) Realize that YOU can't save anyone from cancer or loneliness and
4) Trust in the Divine within yourself to guide you where you need to go.
Just Wait... There's More: Surviving Cancer