Last August, my partner Matt and I were enjoying our 8th summer together ⎯ biking around Brooklyn to try different donut places, celebrating friends’ weddings and enjoying the warm weather with our dog Molly. Then Matt was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The day before my early September birthday, he went in for surgery and began what would be (to date) four months of treatment and recovery.
Difficult times sneak up on you like that. Being a caretaker forced me to face that struggle head on, as well as really think about the coping techniques that I use, whether to repeat to myself or that could be communicated to Matt to help him get through.
A Little Disclaimer: I tend to be a very positive person by nature. While I have family members and friends who struggle with depression, it is not something I have had to deal with personally. I understand that a lot of what I’m going to say is easier said than done and don’t claim this as a definitive list or a sure thing. Everyone finds their own way through life. I don’t intend for any of this advice to be preachy. These techniques helped me and, because I feel like they may help someone else, I felt obligated to share.
ASSEMBLE YOUR TEAM
“Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow”
— Swedish Proverb
I’m totally the type of person to convey sunshine and rainbows externally but be full of storm clouds inside. Part of my positive personality makes it hard for me to share negativity, so I consistently put on a brave face for most people. Most people, but not all.
It’s important to identify the people who you are totally comfortable with and can share the sorrow. Matt and I had a number of people in our corners (beyond each other) who we could talk to and ugly cry. Knowing I could be a hot mess in front of someone helped me keep it together so I wasn’t a hot mess ALL the time.
When Matt first starting going through the gauntlet of doctors and we got the news that it was most likely cancer, I had a friend and co-worker who was willing to drop what she was working on so she could sit with me as I cried in a back room. With her help, I was able to keep it together (more or less) for the rest of the day and many days after that.
Having a support team helped both Matt and me when each other just wasn’t enough. Somedays chemo would get really rough and I felt my daily pep talks become tired, I had a group of people I could text and blow up Matt’s phone with positive messages from all his friends. They even banded together to help ease the financial burden of weeks to months of missed work. Because they shared in our struggle, our friends and family shared in our triumphs and that just made the light at the end of the tunnel that much brighter.
COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS
“Luck is believing you’re lucky.”
— Tennessee Williams
This one is tough but don’t ignore it. Yes, something terrible has just happened and I’m asking you to look on the bright side (in a way), but I swear I’m not being an unrealistic and insensitive jerk. Focusing on what isn’t shitty is one way to remind yourself that, actually, everything isn’t shitty. It’s so easy to experience something horrible and watch it slowly build up along with the daily not-so-horrible but not-so-great things until you are buried under the weight of misfortune and grief.
Matt and I had a lot to be grateful for, even with the cancer diagnosis. I’ve mentioned our amazing family and friends, but there were many other things. We were lucky to have this happen when we were both fully employed at places that were flexible and understanding, especially since up until a year before that wasn’t the case.
Even little things can feel big when you look at them the right way. We live in a city with public transportation so he never had to drive himself after treatment. We were also lucky that Matt has a great sense of humor and could find laughter even when he was scared.
Looking at the way things work in your favor is so much better than the alternative, which is all too easy to slip into. NYC has great transportation options but it’s expensive and far away from our families. His work is flexible but they don’t contribute to long-term disability insurance. The negatives are going to be there, and its makes sense to acknowledge them, but to dwell in them is unproductive and a great way to fall into a negative thought spiral (See #5)
Think of it this way: whether you face tragedy with your family, friends, health, money or career, I would be willing to bet at least 2 of these pillars are strong. Lean on them, while you rebuild the others the best you can.
JUST KEEP GOING
“Survival can be summed up in three words – never give up.
That’s the heart of it really. Just keep trying.”
— Bear Grylls
After recovering from surgery and starting chemo, Matt became concerned about gaining weight. He had gone from running marathons and commuting every morning by bike, to being sedentary as he recovered. Add to that the fact that the steroids in the chemotherapy drugs can make people look bloated, he was getting really worried.
Unfortunately, there have been a number of times in my life that I’ve gone into what I call “survival mode.” In these times, it’s almost like you are doing the bare minimum to simply keep going. Let me be the one to tell you that this 100% okay and sometimes totally necessary.
It’s hard when you are usually so disciplined about something, like Matt was about being physically active, to let that go when you find simply focusing on the basics to be a struggle. When things get really hard, you are not going to be your best self so don’t hold yourself to that standard. It’s okay for your house to be a mess, to order take-out 3 times in one week, to cancel on your friends 2 weekends in a row or be too tired to go to the gym… again. These things aren’t necessities. You are busy doing the hard physical and emotional work of survival.
Now, these things aren’t necessarily chores either. I love running and find it therapeutic, so I’m definitely not saying don’t do these things if you can, just don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get to it. I think I went for a run maybe 3 times in the last month Matt was going through treatment, not because I didn’t want to, but it wasn’t a priority and I tried my best to not stress about it. Making sure we got through was far more important to me.
BE REALISTIC (BUT STAY POSITIVE)
“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic
enough to know that life is a complex matter.”
— Walt Disney
Our experience with cancer was a future full of doubt punctuated with waiting for answers. It began with the first string of doctors and waiting to get the diagnosis. Was it cancer? Then it was, how far along is the cancer? What are our treatment options? And eventually, did the treatment work and what now?
Each of these periods of waiting and questioning provides both the opportunity for hope and despair. Honestly, these times were the hardest for me. It’s just so much easier to plan for the future and just do what you have to do. Even if it’s hard, having a clear path forward feels safer than being locked in a pitch black room full of doors waiting to see which one opens and what’s behind it.
This time was a balancing act between being hopeful but still being realistic. We prepared ourselves in case the news was bad but tried to counter that with realistic optimism.
The trick for me was not to spend too much time thinking about the worst case unless it was productive. Getting things in order, making sure we talked about and decide those uncomfortable things that needed to be decided and reminding Matt (and myself) that we would get through. I also prepared myself for the best as well, planning in my head the surprise party I was going throw for Matt once this was all over.
Most importantly, I thought about the present and how I could make now the best it could be, instead of focusing too far down the road on things beyond my control. That way I could face each obstacle as simply one obstacle instead of a cumulation of bad news and struggles stacked on top of each other. I could use the energy I had on what I could change, here and now.
AVOID THE SPIRAL
“It takes but one positive thought when given a chance to survive and thrive
to overpower an entire army of negative thoughts.”
— Robert H. Schuller
Here is a hard truth: Things may not be getting better. At least, not right now. It may even get worse before it gets better. So it helps to brace yourself for the long haul. That is why it is so important to allow yourself to feel and forgive yourself for negative thoughts. The big things I learn throughout all of this is try not to dwell and forgive yourself.
Let me say it loud for the people in the back, it’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to feel weak. It’s okay to feel angry or scared or numb. There is no right way to feel. The sooner you realize that your reaction and your feelings are acceptable the sooner you can acknowledge them and move beyond them.
If you dwell too long on these feelings and don’t accept them for what they are, it can trigger what feels to me like a spiral of negative emotions. That’s why I will say it again, whatever you are feeling is okay.
There were a lot of times I failed at this and found myself swirling downward, feeling like a failure for not being strong enough. Then I would think, not only am I not strong I’m also doing everything wrong. And then I would feel not sad enough (Yes, it can go both ways, especially when people tell you, “How are you not falling apart right now? I would be a total wreck all the time!”) and before you know it I was a sinkhole of negative feelings all because I didn’t let myself acknowledge in the first place that I wasn’t feeling very strong and that was okay because cancer (and caring for someone with cancer) is fucking hard. If I had done that I would have been better prepared when the second and third feelings hit to tackle them in the same way.
Now Matt and I are out on the other side, we hope. As far as we can tell the chemo worked. Now, he has to have frequent check-ups and tests to make sure it’s all gone and not coming back. He can start working out again and we can make hard plans more than a week or two in advance. What seemed, at the time, like our lives on pause for 4 months has turned into an incredible learning experience. We both found wells of strength we didn’t know existed and we are closer than ever before.
We have gone through something phenomenally shitty and survived. Whatever you are going through you can make it too. It won’t be perfect and it won’t be pretty, but I believe in you.
Curious to hear Matt’s reflections on his cancer-surviving journey, he wrote a blog post all about it.