I have watched several friends and, now, a mother and two sisters at or near death from lung cancer. When my sister passed away this summer, I became a lung cancer patient caring for another lung cancer patient.
New questions surface when a cancer patient takes care of another cancer patient. During my sister's final phase, the big question for me was, "Am I looking in the mirror?" Would I go through what she was going through?
Approaching my sister, a fellow lung cancer patient
I never avoided my sister because of this fear of looking into the mirror, but I did have to redirect this distraction to make it through the really tough days without affecting my own recovery.
I simply trusted in an approach my father suggested before I went in to say goodbye to my dying mother several years ago.
I asked myself: How would I want to be treated? How would I want her to look at me? How can I make it a little better? How can I be sympathetic but encouraging?
It helps if you believe in miracles. You should. I do. They happen. I am proof.
How to help other cancer patients or family members
Maybe my fellow patients or their family members have this "mirror" experience as they journey into MD Anderson for checkups and see and sit with those in more difficult circumstances.
The warm blankets available in waiting rooms and other locations at MD Anderson can help with this. Make sure the friend or patient's family member next to you has a warm blanket if he or she needs one. If you cannot find a blanket, offer your jacket or sweater; it will get back to you.
Offering warmth to someone else struggling with cancer will help you move past the mirror quickly. With or without your own blanket, you'll feel warm.
Learning to balance being a cancer caregiver with being a cancer patient
What about me? After four years of survival, there is no doubt in my mind that attitude, stress and emotional factors not only play a role in survival, but are key to living a wonderful life -- however long it is to be.
Those of us who double as cancer patients and caregivers must each decide how much care we can give, as opposed to how much care we need to receive. You'll know when you are making excuses. Because of your unique position and understanding, you will feel even more compelled to help, so you'll likely need to work more at recognizing when you need a break and take it.
All caregivers are like police officers or EMTs. What good does it do those you are trying to help if you end up a casualty? This is even more true for the cancer patient that is a caregiver, as you are exposed to more waiting rooms, tiring trips in traffic, mind numbing infusion sessions, exam rooms, newspapers, magazines, elevator buttons, rest rooms, clipboards... you have to be able to say no and feel no guilt. You are important too, even though those around the one you are caring for may totally forget your own predicament.
Dealing with what might happen to me
I used to say that I was not afraid of the right now or the hereafter; it was the possibilities for the transition that scared me. I worried about what the transition to death might look like for me: Will it be painful and awful?
But fear of the transition makes me waste time and dominates my thoughts and attitude with what I call my "daymares." Thus, I have concluded that fear of what may happen will only work against me. I have accepted that worry does not buy a single hour of life.
Each patient must trust that if it is destiny they will pass from cancer, they will do so in peace. I do. You can. Your family and loved ones should, too.
Tom Barber is a 58-year-old lung cancer survivor. After a lobectomy and a clinical trial, he completed 5K and 10K runs, a half-marathon and two triathlons.