Ordinarily on the blog, we focus on positive strategies for cancer prevention. While it is proven that incorporating such lifestyle changes into one’s day to day existence are critical to keeping cancer at bay, we all know that in life, there really are no guarantees. Sometimes, people succumb to cancer. When this happens, individuals, families, relatives, friends and neighbours are often ill-equipped to deal with the realities that illness and death leave in their wake.
In this blog, coming out during the season of Christmas, we are hoping that the following insights will better prepare you for how to give to a family experiencing illness or loss in a more meaningful way.
When Illness Strikes:
Make yourself available and do not avoid the topic.
When a friend or relative gets a cancer diagnosis, offer yourself as a person to whom they can confess all their feelings. Approach them from a “What are we going to do,” perspective and not from one of “What are you going to do?” As African people we often don’t express our inner most feelings freely, and counselling is still sadly lacking in our society, but having a caring, non-judgmental support system can be key in creating the positive thinking necessary for a patient who has been set on a course to fight cancer. Pretending that this is not happening or just skirting around the issue whenever you are around them is more painful and isolating to the patient, than helpful.
Get in the trenches with them.
Find out what is happening regarding the course of treatment. In a recent issue of Essence magazine, there was an article that highlighted how some cancer patients actually missed treatments because of lack of transportation. This is appalling on so many levels! Just basic things like maybe having a circle of friends and relatives with cars or with days off who can accompany the patient, or at least pick up and drop off is incredibly useful. Sometimes people can feel to sick and weak to drive or deal with public transportation after a dose of chemo.
Become observant of their needs.
Sometimes people are just too sick or too prideful to ask for help in certain areas of their life. Small things like being unable to raise your hand above your shoulder after a painful mastectomy, can mean a myriad of things that go unchecked. Offer to help them with hair-washing and styling. If you are in the diaspora and can afford it – buy and send them a wig when their hair starts falling out. Offer to mail their letters and bills. Make sure the kids uniforms are washed and shoes polished. Take the kids out for a day to give the caregivers of the patient a break. Go to pick up groceries. If they do not have a regular housekeeper or gardener to help them, just show up with cleaning supplies and spruce up the kitchen or bathroom, change and or wash the sheets on the bed, or do a little ironing. If you do a little something at each visit, without being asked, they will come to feel that they can rely on you for other more intense things. If you pay attention, there is always something you can help with!
Take Care of the Caregivers. Especially once the effects of treatment take hold or in the unfortunate event that the cancer becomes irreversible and certain death is imminent. The needs of a patient become a 24/7 situation and it can take both an emotional and physical toll on the caregivers. Make sure you let them know that they can take a break when you are around. Help out with housework and meal prep as if you live there. Arrive with a fully prepared meal that they can just add rice or sadza to when ready. Much like becoming observant of their needs (above) – look for signs of neglect in the family or environment and tend to them without making a fuss.
Help them face the finances of cancer care head on.
As many of us have had to find out the hard way, the financial part of a comprehensive fight against cancer will leave your wallet bare. Friends, relatives and communities can come together and donate what they can to supplement whatever the family or individual in need is able to do. Trust me – unless the patient is a millionaire, it matters not how much money you perceive them as having – there will be a huge cost to pay.
In the diaspora GoFundMe and Kickstarter campaigns can be helpful in having a central place that people can donate to, even anonymously if desired. Such campaigns also open us up to the kindness of strangers. If you are in Zimbabwe, having one, maybe two at the most, central figures who liaise with the doctor and patient to figure out finances, (usually the most honest and reliable person in the family) is extremely helpful. All phone calls, donations and medical payments can go through this person, in the event that there is no spouse or sibling capable of being this point person for the patient and their family.
Offer up your network and suggest resources.
The Cancer Center in Zimbabwe, is an excellent resource for individuals and their loved ones wrestling with cancer. They provide free counselling, access to alternative complementary services and general support with the very difficult process of living with cancer. There are Cancer Centers all over the world, so if you are in the diaspora research where the closest one is to your patient, and tell them about it. If you live near them, don’t just tell them about it, offer to go with them. Set a date, and do it. Give them a list of services and people they can call for anything they might need help with.
In the diaspora.
Give practical gifts at birthdays and Christmas, like housecleaning coupons and gift cards for meals out and delivery, taxi or uber transportation.
When You Lose Someone to Cancer
Loss is devastating, no matter how it occurs. A lot of the above still applies to helping a family or spouse left behind when a person succumbs to cancer. The key is to not disappear from their lives after the funeral and memorial services are done. Just because your friend died, it does not mean that you should exclude the surviving spouse from gatherings they used to attend as a couple. Remain a constant in the lives of children, showing up every few months to see how things are going. You can call more often in between visits.
Offer to help with arranging to sell or give away belongings so that a person can move forward from loss. Help them find a new place to live when that is the appropriate solution. Be sure to coddle them for at least a good year. People grieve and adjust at different paces, but usually, when surrounded by love and support, people bob up from head-reeling loss and devastation just enough to have the strength and sensibility to take care of themselves and others around that time. Just include them as much as you can, and love them a lot until they can hold their head up.
Also, do not forget family that is abroad, that for whatever reason cannot be there at the end or even for funeral services. They need your love and empathy, and not your judgment. Things are usually more complex than they appear.
Anyway, that is the sad reality of what happens when cancer strikes. It is not pretty, but it has to be said. At this moment I would like to publicly thank all our family and friends who stood by our mother when she was succumbing to this dreadful disease, and were there for our father in the aftermath.
One aunt in particular said something to my mum, Elizabeth Chanakira, when she became ill for the last time. She said that she was right here and would stay, and would not leave until mum got better. This gave me so much comfort, to know that she would be by her side no matter what. This was her euphemistic way of saying to all of us that she was getting down and staying down in the trenches with us, even until the end. Amen and thank you for that.