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When Your Husband Has Cancer You May Have to Lie

When you ask, "How's he doing?" accept that it's in your and my best interest for me to be non-specific. So I have to say, "He's doing okay," and leave it at that. We can then be appreciative that you asked, and you can be thankful to not know more. They say the devil is in the details.
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Cancer is everywhere. It's probably just a function of my age (56), but I seem to know way too many people, close ones, who are affected.

My husband for one. He is my second husband, and the love of my life. We both needed to be divorced to find our way to each other, and consider it to have been beshert (the Yiddish word for "meant to be"). We got married with our children on a family cruise to Alaska. One year later, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. I've had to deal with that. I've had to be devastated, crushed, strong, hopeful and cheerful. My rabbi said to me early on, "Don't go to the funeral today," and I've taken that to heart. We live each day fully, lovingly and gratefully. But his diagnosis is terminal. Short of a miracle, that is our plight.

I was motivated to write this because I have known an overwhelming outpouring of support, concern and offers of help and love. I feel like I want to put a precision to these offers, and to the reality of what living with a terminal loved one entails. We sometimes want to dance around the fine points, but I'm hoping it would serve everyone well if I could articulate some details. After all, I want help and I know you want to give it. Here are some things you might want to consider if you know someone with cancer.

1. Accept that I am going to have to lie to you. When you ask, "How's he doing?" accept that it's in your and my best interest for me to be non-specific. So I have to say, "He's doing okay," and leave it at that. We can then be appreciative that you asked, and you can be thankful to not know more. They say the devil is in the details.

2. Don't tell us to give up sugar. I know you mean well with your solutions and alternative treatments. You want to share and provide an opportunity to do what no medical science can do, but you're also telling a dying man that he should spend his last remaining days, months or years torturing himself for NO REASON. At this point, we look at every day like a Last Supper. And I encourage him to do ANYTHING HE WANTS. We don't give up hope. Never. But I want him to have all pleasure, all indulgence. I want him to have the greatest joy he's ever had. Can you see why when you say, "Give up sugar and dairy and you'll be cured," it comes across like "If you don't deprive yourself, you are therefore responsible for killing yourself?" It's a really ugly notion and not valid in his case. His cancer is wide-spread. I shouldn't have to explain this to you.

3. When you ask what you can do for us, be ready for it to be something other than a casserole. Because what really helps are small things. Going to Trader Joe's? Give me a call. Nine times out of 10, I won't need it, but this might be the 10th time that I do. If you have kids my daughter's age, and you're going to a movie, maybe you could invite her? I don't mean for you to invent activities, and certainly not every week. I wouldn't want my daughter to think I'm getting rid of her, but it makes me feel less like I'm imposing if the invitation comes from you rather than me asking.

4. Call and invite me to kvetch. I may not, but I need some irrational venting. For me to complain about the cancer is futile. But that doesn't mean that I don't harbor anger and frustration in my bloodstream. So maybe help me by allowing me to unload it on some unsuspecting target, like say, a neighbor who has perpetrated a slight insult upon me. If I can heap my scorn on that deflective victim, it helps unravel the hurt.

5. At a certain point, families like ours do need a little extra cooking help. Not an onslaught (we don't have a big enough freezer), and not a schedule -- we're not to that point -- but occasionally. So you might ask if I have a recipe you could make, or if you're making some killer wild-rice salad, offer to bring us a quart? That kind of thing. But ask first. When I just get random quarts of foods, it eerily reminds me of being at the end point, and I don't want that.

6. Give me a coupon for a favor. Since I'm working, raising a teenager, still parenting a college kid and caring for an elderly widowed Mom who lives an hour away, I miss a lot. Things that occur to me that are helpful would be: offering to drive down to a pharmacy across town to pick up our increasing cornucopia of meds; offering to drive my teenager to an appointment or activity; having your kid offer to walk the dogs for us. Maybe if you're going out to dinner, see if you can pick something up for us. Even if we get it after we've had dinner, we may like to have it the next day. That kind of thing.

The amazing thing about this whole cancer experience has been the extreme outpouring of support from our friends and relatives. Everyone says, "If there's anything I can do, please let me know." But it's hard to be in the position of repeatedly asking for help. As primary caretaker, I don't want to look or be pathetically needy. I know that in my heart it makes people feel good to help out. It would for me. This list is just a guideline that might make it easier for us both to band together to support the one who ultimately needs it, the one who is no longer in the position to be too proud to ask for help. It allows me to acknowledge that I have more on my plate than I can handle sometimes, and I hope it's a good road map for us to work together to support the whole.

Thanks mostly for listening. Oh, and I have a really good recipe for paella. (Too much?)

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