April 24, 2000
Some people say that the role of primary caregiver to a cancer patient can at times be as stressful as having cancer yourself. We make commitments to our partner and to our children - to be there when the going gets tough, to stick with our family through thick and thin. I don't believe anything can prepare a person for the role of caregiver to someone with a life-threatening illness.
My perspective on caregiving was pretty much instilled in me when I was a boy and constantly reinforced through adolescence and adulthood. Men are supposed to be strong, to not show fear, to put the needs of the family first and not complain when their own needs might not be met. They're taught to respect hard work and learn quickly that in this society there is a lot of value placed on the man who can endure adversity without complaining. We work long hours and advance quickly in our chosen field by going the extra mile without complaining. We learn to sacrifice our own feelings to take care responsibilities at work and at home.
Our fathers told us that it was okay to cry, to show our feelings, to reach out for help if we needed it, and that we could always come to them and count on them for help if the going got tough. Our fathers told us that it was okay to be afraid and that the best part of a man was the part on the inside.
We went to school and saw real value placed on the boy who was the strongest, the fastest, the one who excelled in sports because not only was he stronger than the average boy our age, he could endure hardship without complaining. Maybe the star quarterback twisted his ankle in the middle of the game - most likely he taped up the ankle and finished the game. Even if his team didn't win, he was a hero.
We watched our fathers for many years. We never saw them afraid. We might not have ever seen them cry. When the chips were down and our father's back was against the wall, he seemed to draw on an inner strength that we found amazing and continued to support us - no matter what the cost to him.
Let me ask a question or two, though. Where did our fathers go when things were so tough they weren't sure they could go on? Who did they talk to? What did they do when the odds were against them and there seemed no solution to life's more difficult problems? Why are the things our fathers told us and the things they showed us so much different?
A lot of men believe that just about any problem can be solved, given enough time and effort. When cancer struck my family I immediately assumed the role of protector and caregiver and found out that I was pretty ill-equipped to do either. There aren't many resources out there for cancer caregivers, especially if you live in a smaller community. You know, if someone had given me a book on how to act when cancer appeared in my family, I could have at least read the book and learned what to do, and in my rather typical male fashion, I could have handled it. I could have taken care of this.
You know, you just can't fix cancer.
Like most caregivers, I had to relearn almost everything I knew about supporting my family. Here was a problem that couldn't be solved by working extra hours or taking a second job, taking out a mortgage, hiring a lawyer or just going out and beating someone up. I had never been threatened on this level before. Something threatened to take away what is easily the most important thing in my life - and no threats, bargaining or force of will could eliminate that threat. For maybe the first time in my life, I was powerless.
I learned from friends and spiritual leaders that we don't have to go through this alone. I learned from other caregivers and from cancer patients that it was okay to be afraid, okay to be angry and okay to reach out to others and ask for help. I joined support groups and got help - and you know what? I found a lot of people in the same position that I was. They were afraid, they had been threatened on a core level and had not only survived, they seemed to be doing pretty darned well.
We might not be able to fix cancer, but as a group we're a lot stronger than we are separately. There are resources available - please take advantage of them. If there isn't a face-to-face support group in your area, there are plenty of online resources available. Please take advantage of them - for together we can do what we could not do alone.