Cancer and Counter-Culture Courage


Since bringing my 89-year-old mother-in-law, Ivalene, home from the hospital where she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, we’ve both been hit with the upper respiratory plague that’s been going around. The most energy I’ve expended has been in heating up chicken broth, making mugs of TheraFlu, and throwing a fleece blanket into the dryer to tuck around my chilled mom-in-law.

Photo credit: Unsplash

The blanket-in-the-dryer idea was something I did for Hubby back in the days when the chemo—which wasn’t a cure for his late-stage prostate cancer, but was meant for palliative care—left him chilled to the bone. He would groan in absolute utter sheer bliss every time I spread a dryer-heated fleece blanket over him.

On Thursday, we took Ivalene to her first and only visit with an oncologist. No surprises—she has declined treatment—but it’s now official and a referral has been made for hospice care.

My mother-in-law is defiant courageous plucky independent no-nonsense. And she passed this down to all her children. Back when Hubby sprouted nephrostomy tubes out his kidneys to bypass the large mass in the bladder and his second nephrostomy tube fell out, our hospice field nurse, Melinda, indicated he had 24-48 hours left. “Renal failure,” she said.

But 24-48 hours came and went. “He has tenacity,” Melinda said when she stopped by the house again. “He’s broken all the rules. Maybe there’s still something he wants to teach us.”

Hubby had defied the odds since time of diagnosis. He lived ten years with late stage prostate cancer that had spread to the lymph system and eventually to the bladder, bones, liver. He shouldn’t have lived that long.

“Maybe what he wants to teach us is this sitting still and acknowledging all that is precious around us,” I wrote in my journal back then. “This slowing down. This drinking in peace. These young adult children who have come long distances. The meal that will be delivered by friends later this evening. Snow falling.”

This thought from Ashley Davis Bush: “We live in a world that doesn’t like pain. We too might be tempted to turn from it, to keep the stiff upper lip. But grief asks us to touch pain, to sit with pain and to ask it to tea.”

I have touched pain and sorrow; I’ve sat with it and shared my Chai tea with it. And I have come away from the encounter more compassionate tenacious resilient belligerent pertinacious.

Ashley Davis Bush goes on to say: “Being with your sorrow is brave. It is counter-culture courage.”

Hubby had counter-culture courage. Mom-in-law has counter-culture courage. As for caregivers everywhere, you know that it takes counter-culture courage to care for your loved one with cancer.

My best advice from my failures and successes as a cancer caregiver: Wrap that courage around you like a fleece blanket warm out of the dryer. Take one day at a time. Accept help; ask for help. Let people love you as you travel this sweet heart-wrenching cancer care-giving journey.

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