Eva Grayzel is a cancer survivor, motivational speaker, and patient advocate. She founded the oral cancer awareness campaign Six-Step Screening to awaken health care providers to the urgency of detecting oral cancer in the early stages and educating the public. Eva is the author of 2 award-winning children’s books to promote dialogue and lessen the fear around cancer. You can follow her on Instagram, LinkedIn, or her website.
I distinctly remember the moment I was told, “You have stage IV cancer.” I didn’t hear anything the doctor said after that. I subsisted for the next 24 hours in my mom’s bed in the fetal position until she sat me up and said, “Eva, your surgery is in 2 weeks. I’m taking you home now. You need to plan for this.”
After the news of my diagnosis sank in, it was time to get into preparation mode. The first thing I did when I got home was cancel my upcoming work commitments. Then, we planned and celebrated our daughter’s 5th birthday party. The hardest thing was calling my family and friends to deliver my health report.
Surgery and other treatments for cancer can be exhausting physically and emotionally. When I was in cancer treatment, I found that I only had so much bandwidth to cope with the changes to my daily routine. Here are some tips that worked for me to endure cancer treatment while still preserving my sanity.
1: Organize your support network.
Ask for what you need and want. I needed help with meals, driving to and from cancer treatment, activities for my children, laundry-folding, and cleaning up toys. Also, articulate what you don’t need and want. For me, flower arrangements depleted valuable time and energy. First of all, the doorbell would ring at any hour of the day with the delivery, which would disturb my naps. The flowers also required attention: watering, weeding out the droopy ones, and throwing the whole thing in the big garbage can outdoors. Lastly, who needs the possibility of a rib-breaking sneeze, runny nose, or drippy eyes to add to all the other symptoms we experience during cancer treatment?
One of the best things my friend Carol did for me was help organize all the people who wanted to help. The idea came to her when I shared the story about a friend who asked, “What can I do for you?” When I asked this friend to pick my daughter up from pre-school at 3 p.m., she said she couldn’t do it that day. She offered other options, but this required planning and energy that I didn’t have.
“Give your friends my number,” said Carol. She printed up a 2-month calendar and fielded the calls. Some friends liked to cook, others liked to drive, and if you can believe it, I had a friend who loved folding laundry! Within a week, people signed up for what I needed, when I needed it. My doorbell rang with a meal when it was a good time for me. This was literally the best gift ever!
2: Reserve your energy.
Start a webpage to update everyone in your life at one time, such as CaringBridge or another similar service. I found that texts and calls could be overwhelming, and repeating myself over and over again was squandering precious energy. Starting a webpage is a great way to let friends know what would be helpful for you and what wouldn’t. You can also ask a close friend or family member to write the updates for you, if you want to preserve your strength.
3: Be kind to yourself.
Rest when you need it. Your body will let you know when you need to stop everything and just do nothing. It’s OK to be selfish. Put yourself first. Every day, try to get outside and breathe fresh air. Even if your energy tank is low, let the sun shine on you and warm your soul while imagining the healing energy of nature. Choose food thoughtfully, as if everything you eat is medicine; the healthier the food, the healthier you can be. Another technique that worked for me was to find something to smile about every day.
4: Focus on your blessings.
It’s human nature to lament your losses and a human skill to recognize your gifts. During cancer, you may ask yourself, “What gifts or blessings?” But many of us experience the gifts of kindness, friendship, compassion, learning, teamwork, and support in our lives. I’ve found that life often has a way of staying in balance. For example, when you are weighed down by your circumstances, try taking notice of how the people in your life step up to the plate to support you.
5: Ignore comments like, “You can do this.”
It is not your job to live up to others’ expectations. Your job is to do what is best for you. Comments like, “If anyone can do this, you can,” or, “You are so strong, you can fight this,” often create unwanted pressure. While friends and family just want to express their love and care for you, I found that they sometimes just didn’t know what to say or do. I would suggest directing them to your webpage where you can let friends and family know what would help you and what wouldn’t.
For example, I did not want to hear stories about other people with cancer, and neither did I want an onslaught of medical articles when I had a team of doctors I trusted. One of the notes I made was, “When you see me in person, instead of telling me I look great, which emphasizes my appearance, I would prefer you said, ‘It’s great to see you,’ which acknowledges the hell I have been through and that I’m still here.”
6: Listen to audio books.
Getting lost in a story would help me to forget my pain. Many public libraries have books you can download in seconds with a library card. Ask your friends for suggestions of inspirational books and stories with a helpful message. A couple of my favorites are Albatross by Terry Willis and Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom.
7: Bump up your oral hygiene routine.
When I was diagnosed with oral cancer, I learned that the health of my mouth was the window to the health of my whole body. You can minimize bacteria growth in your mouth by brushing after every meal. Use a soft toothbrush to minimize a micro-cut on your fragile oral tissue. Also, try using alcohol-free mouthwash, which won’t dry out your mouth. Lastly, add an oral irrigator to your oral hygiene routine, which can help remove particles from your teeth. I love the cordless, waterproof variety that can hold a charge for an entire hospital stay, and you can use it in the shower! As an oral cancer survivor, I’m all about keeping my teeth for as long as possible.
8: Minimize sleep disruption.
Waking up in the middle of the night due to symptoms like dry mouth can be very disruptive to your sleep, especially if you knock your glass of water over onto your book and wood nightstand, which is something I have done too many times to list. When I eventually bought a hydration backpack, I found it was a perfect solution to wet my whistle during the night without even opening my eyes or sitting up. I would just reach for the hose, take a swig, and go right back to sleep. Try to find similar methods of coping with side effects if you find they are interfering with your sleep.
9: Avoid the stress of keeping a secret to protect loved ones.
During cancer, I would air out my inner thoughts with a therapist, support group, or other individuals who had been through it. Ask your care team about options the health care system provides. Chaplains can also help with spiritual or religious concerns and questions.
For some people, cancer is a family affair. If you have children, I found that rather than worrying about how my young children would cope with the news, it was helpful to share age-appropriate information with them and ask questions to determine what their fears were and how to best address them. My children were 5 and 7 when I went through cancer treatments, and I wish I had more resources at the time to help me help them. Remind your children that you are doing your best to get better.
10: Avoid the stress of forgetting something important.
Keep a journal nearby to document gnawing thoughts, fleeting questions, and personal observations. In my journal, there were days I scribbled my frustrations, days I wrote poetry, days I wrote expletives, and days I wrote about profound wisdom. After each journal entry, what I remember most is feeling a sense of calm. Try to view this cancer experience as an opportunity to learn about what’s really important in your life.
When going through cancer treatment, we often have a choice about what we focus on. We can complain, kvetch, and bemoan our losses. Or, we can focus on gratitude for all the people in our lives who will help us through this challenging time. Rather than ask yourself, “Why me?”, instead ask, “What for?” Make this cancer journey worthwhile by learning something from it. During my experience, I learned that life is neither fair nor unfair. It just is. Let’s choose to endure treatments for cancer in the best way we can, whatever that may be, and no one can expect more than that from us.
The author has no relevant relationships to disclose.