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Families Affected by Cancer: Looking for Meaning
The head in the sand
Cancer is a topic a lot of people would prefer to ignore. Unless it’s happening to them or someone close to them, most people outside the medical community would prefer to put it somewhere in the back of their mind. But we can't put our head in the sand when it does happen to us. A great many people have been touched by and affected by cancer. Many of us know survivors and the stories of their courageous battles. For some of us it is a different story. Some of us have lost parents, some of us have lost aunts, uncles, cousins, and some of us have lost best friends. And some of us have even lost children. I think this is the one subject that is almost taboo for so many parents. Just imagining their own child in a similar situation is too powerful and too terrifying to even want to go there. Even for a second.
My sister lost her 26 year old daughter to cancer less than a year ago. My niece had had skin cancer before and had recovered but this time around it hit her lungs. My sister and her ex-husband were incredibly strong and devoted to their daughter during this process. I won’t go into too many details here about her cancer and the process they went through because this isn’t my story. So out of respect I won’t go into further details about her cancer experience. What I will try to talk about is the meaning her cancer had for us as a family and how others can maybe learn from this experience.
Our own worst fears
When my niece passed away it was something that obviously deeply affected all of the members of my family. Some of us wondered if we should have done more. Some of us questioned the medical care she received, and some of us were just numb. A common response for many of us (friends, family, and parents) when dealing with something as frightening as cancer is too just shut down and go into denial. When our worst fears are realized, we often look for someone to blame because we haven't come to grips with the fact that death is a normal as birth and our denial only makes that reality more pronounced..
After her battle with cancer ended, the a common feeling among family was that it was unfair. Elderly relatives seemed to feel guilty that they were still alive while someone so young had left us (sorry, I don’t like the term taken from us). Is there ever an explanation for events like this occurring in our lives? I know I can’t answer that, but I do know my niece dealt with her cancer with as much grace and courage as anyone could ever expect. Her great spirit and wonderful way of being made losing her that much more difficult.
One piece of advice I can offer anyone dealing with a person who has life threatening cancer is for that person to be honest with themselves. Living in denial of the potential that we can lose a loved one is a common response. However, the one thing we owe anyone who has the potential to pass away is to tell them how we feel about them and to do our best to be genuine and present. For many of us this is may be like walking a tightrope. We don’t want to treat the living like they are already gone and we certainly don’t want to jinx their treatment. But we do owe it to ourselves and to them to be honest, at some point, and tell them what they mean to us.
Giving our fears meaning
Profound challenges like fighting cancer may or may not happen in our lives for a reason. Who is to say? But it makes sense to give profound experiences in our lives as much meaning as we can. When my niece got cancer, many of us were unable to accept the possibility that she could really pass away. Maybe because she had beaten cancer once already, many of us figured her optimism and great attitude would get her through again. In this case, it did get her through in that she had a great attitude and that helped her cope with the cancer and the treatment. But it didn’t prevent the result we all feared.
There was a profound message in her passing though, a message for all of us as a family. That is, when faced with something as difficult as cancer; we all need to do as much as we can to support the patient and the family and friends around them. We need to put aside our own fears about death and mortality, if we do in fact have these fears. Situations like this can challenge our faith, our belief about fairness, and even cause us to question the meaning of our own lives.
Yet the meaning we give to events like this needs to be more profound than wallowing in the deep pool of our own fear and existential angst. We can support the family members and the patient by being present, by showing our true compassion and by letting them know they are not alone. In fact, if dealing with life threatening cancer does start to feel cause us to feel anxious about our own perceived unimportance in this vast universe of ours, the only reasonable way to deal with it is by being more aware, being more present, and being more genuine so that the time we spend with those who are also affected by cancer is more meaningful.
If we can do one thing to support a family dealing with cancer, it would would be to let them know we are there for them. Not to just say the words, but to be genuine, be present, and be compassionate. The rest will take care of itself. We often hear people ask what they can do in situations like helping a family dealing with cancer. However, maybe a more important question is not what can we do but how can we be. We don’t need to give advice or try to fix the problem. We need to be free of judgment by not reacting how others deal with cancer and just be there. We need to be our best selves by being there in a genuine empathic way.
My niece’s story is a story of courage and optimism. She is survived by a beautiful daughter who luckily has all of her great traits. My niece was often concerned about our family being so spread apart and distant from each other. When she passed away it served the purpose of bringing us closer, maybe not so much in a physical sense, but certainly in a much more important way; the way we keep in touch and let each other know how we really feel. Her struggle with cancer has not been forgotten and gives us more meaning than anyone could ever have expected. It may not have been what we any of us wanted but we are thankful and grateful that it made us all more aware in so many ways.