Drinking from a Fire Hose–and I Need a Break

When we learn a friend has a serious illness or other health condition–or a financial problem, marital issues, trouble with a kid’s behavior…you name it–we often rush in with advice, share anecdotes of what worked for us or another friend faced with a similar situation, pass along helpful articles and websites, and ask if they’ve done this or that. This is natural. And we do it because we care. We want to help our friend fix what’s wrong. We don’t want them to suffer, and if we have information that might be useful, well, we need to share it with them, in love.


As a person now walking in the shoes of the “friend with a serious illness,” I have to be honest–I am really struggling with the outpouring of helpful information, advice, and questions. Between the information about treatments and test results I get from my doctor and physician assistant, the nurse follow-up calls to discuss my meds, the nutritionist’s guidance, AND everything that is passed along by well-meaning friends and family, it’s like drinking from a fire hose–or, perhaps more accurately, a bunch of fire hoses.

Cancer treatment is complicated enough on its own. Keeping up with regular blood work, remembering to take pills every day at the same time, going in for check-ups every couple weeks and a shot once a month, scheduling various tests. All while keeping up with our teenage son at home and trying to stay connected with our other son at college, trying to be a decent wife, and not letting the household fall into utter disarray. Oh, and working a full-time job at the same time. Now, toss in the texts, emails, phone calls, and personal conversations from a couple dozen people who want to share a nugget of information, tell you about some supplement or other product, recommend a doctor, or suggest a clinical trial.

I desire to hit cancer from every angle, to know that whatever and whenever the outcome, I did every single thing I could do, within reason, to fight this disease and live well at the same time. So every suggestion that comes to me ends up being considered. Maybe not initially–sometimes my reaction is, no, that’s crazy or thanks, I’m happy with my current plan. But the information continues to swirl around in my brain, and I eventually mull it over and play out in my mind. That means, in addition to managing treatment and family and work, I’m also spending considerable mental energy researching what the healthiest diet is, trying to fit regular exercise into my schedule, thinking about removing toxins from our environment by switching all our cleaning and personal care products to something nontoxic/organic, looking into water filter systems and researching glass storage containers to replace plastic, finding time to meditate/pray to relieve stress, reevaluating my choice of medical team (which I am happy with, for the record), and formulating lots of questions for each doctor’s appointment.

If you got a little tired reading through that long list, think of how I’m feeling–particularly when it’s all layered on top of the stress that comes with a metastatic cancer diagnosis, the thoughts of my own mortality, and the emotional effects of hormone manipulation.

So, I have a request (for the couple dozen folks who might read this blog). For now, please just file away any helpful suggestions and information sources for awhile. My mental inbox is overflowing and I need to process what’s before me already. Feel free to reach out and tell me you’re thinking about me or ask how I’m feeling. But no more information or suggestions, please. Not for a little while. Not even if you’re convinced you have the 100% sure-fire cancer cure (because, let’s be honest, that doesn’t yet exist).

In fact, I suggest we apply my request to the way we approach any of our friends who enter a time of crisis. When we have information to share or a story of hope we just know will be helpful, let’s ask our friends if they would like to hear it and acknowledge that we realize they might feel bombarded and now might not be a good time. Here’s some suggested language: “I know you’ve got a lot to digest right now. A friend of mine followed a diet that really helped her while she was in treatment. I’d like to share it with you, but only if you’re interested and ready to think about stuff like that.” This gives our friends a choice to accept new information into their mental inbox or to opt out. They may welcome whatever you’ve got. Or they may say, “I might want to hear about that later, but right now, I can’t deal with that.” Odds are, if they’re at all interested in the topic you mentioned, they’ll ask about it down the road. In the meantime, we’ll avoid adding to the mental chaos they’re trying to sort through.

Hold both my hands

Last month, I heard for the second time, “It’s cancer.” Metastatic breast cancer this time, to be more specific. Metastatic. That’s a terribly scary word. All too recently, we saw what that can mean. It’s not good.

In June, my mother-in-law died from metastatic cancer, from a sarcoma on her leg that spread to her lungs. In her final week on this earth, I watched her grow weaker and weaker, seemingly by the hour, until she couldn’t get out of the little hospital bed that hospice had provided. I watched in agony one night while she struggled to breathe, as her sons and daughters-in-law and other family members took turns comforting her the best we could while hospice nurses administered various medications to bring her relief. We buried her 7 months after finding out the cancer had spread. This experience is the filter through which I heard my oncologist’s words.

Metastatic cancer is treatable, but not curable. My oncologist was blunt in that regard, and medical literature backs him up. No false promises here. But chemo and other drugs can mange it, can keep the tumors from growing or spreading for awhile, often for years. “It’s like diabetes or other chronic diseases,” my oncologist says. (I’m sorry–diabetes, when managed, doesn’t typically eventually kill you. So, not quite the same thing, doc, but thanks for trying.)

The prognosis for metastatic breast cancer is better than for my mother-in-law’s sarcoma. There are more effective treatments and more options for treatments. Still, the best I’ve been offered is the possibility of keeping the disease at bay to prolong life, and hopefully with a decent quality of life.

I know, I know… people have lived for many years past the prognosis they were given, there are stories of people whose cancer went into remission when doctors said it was impossible, and we don’t know what new medication they’ll come out with. I also believe God still works miracles today. Trust me, I am grasping onto hope that I can defy the odds.

But while I hold firmly (desperately) to hope in one hand, I cannot avoid holding in the other hand the very real possibility that my time could be relatively short–certainly shorter than I’d planned. Most of the time, I keep that hand–the hand of fear, sadness, anger–tightly clenched and hidden behind my back, where neither I nor those I love can see it. Yet, it’s there. And sometimes it relaxes open and out slip thoughts of suffering or heartbreak. In those moments, either a lump forms in my throat and the tears flow or cuss words flow and my fists flail in a rage.

Those around me want to hold the hand that contains hope. When they reach out to me in support and encouragement, they grab hold of the hope hand, and if that other hand starts to slip into view, they’re eager to push it back, out of sight. Few want to acknowledge what’s in that other hand, let alone actually talk about it.

But there’s no denying the other hand exists; I can’t pretend it’s not there and ignore what it contains. That’s not healthy. I need to be willing to unclench that fist occasionally and confront the fear, disappointment, sadness, and pain it contains so I can process my circumstances fully, so I can be prepared emotionally and materially when the end arrives–whenever that is. And I need the people who support me to be willing to hold BOTH of my hands in this journey–the hopeful and the fearful. Even if it’s painful for both of us.