Cancer. The word is a synonym for fear – even terror.
A few weeks ago, during colon cancer month, I wrote about a former student, Sarah McCurry. Sarah contacted me shortly after she was diagnosed with fourth-stage colon cancer in February. She is just 23 years old.
Readers wrote to tell me their stories. Sometimes they told me how they, too, had been diagnosed with colon cancer at a young age. Sometimes they wrote about losing a loved one to the disease.
One email, written by Tina Hipkins, a survivor of colon cancer, spoke about her caregivers.
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In February 2012, Tina’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her three daughters went to their respective doctors to be tested. None showed any signs of breast cancer, but Tina was diagnosed with anemia and then, to her shock, stage-three colon cancer. At the time, she was only 42 – too young to have had a colonoscopy.
Tina had already been dealing with the fear and terror of cancer because her husband had been diagnosed with GIST (gastrointestinal stromal tumor) in 2009. Though he received the all-clear in October 2010, a year later the doctors discovered the cancer had returned and had spread to his liver.
“For a year my mom and I were both going through chemo, radiation and various surgeries of our own at the same time – and we couldn’t be there for each other during our battles, either, because of the distance,” she wrote.
“So my sister would fly from Iowa to North Carolina between the both of us so she could care for us. And on top of that, my husband was also going through his treatment! My poor mother-in-law was taking me to my treatments – 5 days/week for radiation and 2-3 days/week for chemo… not to mention all of the doctor appointments I had to go to. Then she had to be there for her son, too, who goes to a specialist in Miami.”
Carolyn Hipkins, Tina’s mother-in-law, was taking care of her son, her daughter-in-law, and her own ailing husband – all at the same time.
“You hear about patients going through their struggles with illnesses and cancer,” Tina said, “but you rarely hear about the caregivers who dedicate their time for others. She’s a selfless woman who never asked for anything in return for all that she does. She and I have joked on more than one occasion she could be a Lifetime Movie!”
Caretakers must face the awful possibility of loss. How will they help take care of those they love without breaking down, without giving up?
Sarah, I know, is terribly afraid of chemotherapy. She remembers seeing her aunt Susie, who lost her life to colon cancer less than a year ago, unable to walk after her treatments, sick and nearly lifeless. Several times, she has said, she doesn’t want to be like that. Not ever.
Recently, I asked Sarah to imagine, and then tell me, where she would be after chemotherapy. She described being in her bedroom, with her boyfriend, Eric. She was lying down, she said. Eric was with her, holding her.
“How do you feel,” I asked?
“Safe,” she said.
We need to acknowledge all those caretakers who help their loved ones feel safe in the midst of heart-rending fear and physical exhaustion and sickness. We must honor those who travel and stay overnight and run the errands and help with appointments. We must thank – again and again – those who so selflessly show such love and devotion that they give up their lives to help others.
Such caregivers embody the kind of goodness and generosity that we can all aspire to. If you know one, please say so.
Barbara Thiede is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Barbara? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.