As I gazed into her hospital room, I noticed all the flowers. In the bed lay a very frail woman, hooked up to morphine to kill the pain. How could this be the same person who only a few weeks before was hopping into her car and going to work every day? Why, she hadn't even taken a vacation in 11 years! She cared for her sister, her huge house and, at the age of 75, worked 40 hours a week.
Our family prided itself in the fact that my mother-in-law Dorothy was so strong and independent for her age. We thought she would outlive us. She never complained and would not ask anyone to do anything for her. Now here she lay, totally dependent on people to even take her to the bathroom.
I still remember when she called my husband to take her to the hospital. She was in horrible pain. Nevertheless, while en route, she had some loose ends to take care of. She needed to drop some things off at work before caring for herself!
A few days after taking her to the hospital, I sat with my husband in a small room listening to the doctor list all the places where cancer had invaded her body. It might've been faster for the doctor to have told us where the cancer wasn't.
The doctor saw no chance of her surviving the prognosis. The best thing they could do for her was to try to make her comfortable by reducing the horrible pain. The doctor ordered radiation and chemotherapy.
Following the diagnosis, Dorothy's cancer became a sickness not only for her but our family as well. I spent my mornings taking her to radiation treatments, keeping track of different doctor visits and giving her medication. I also had to fight with the insurance companies. While sitting in the waiting room during her treatments, I would read magazines and booklets on cancer in hopes of finding suggestions on overall diet and particular food she could eat without throwing up.
I had entered into a new world of people who were also sick and fighting cancer. I watched as friends and relatives brought in their loved ones for treatment. It was sad to see the strain on some of the caregivers' faces.
For me it was emotionally draining as I tried to stay positive for my mother-in-law, while crying alone or to a friend. At times, I felt I was in a nightmare with no end in sight and with no end in sight for her and no relief from all her suffering.
Cancer's widespread impact
Dorothy lost her courageous battle with cancer eight years ago. This past year, 2014, saw an estimated 1.7 million new cancer cases diagnosed and around 577,000 cancer deaths in the United States. Excluding abortion, cancer remains the second most common cause of death in America, accounting for nearly 1 in 4 deaths.
My heart sinks when I read on church prayer lists of people being hit with cancer or other life-threatening diseases. The statistics become very real to them when they become one of the numbers. Then there are the family members who also receive the diagnoses, which hit them hard too as they try to cope with caring for a loved one.
While going through this with my mother-in-law, I thought of others who are also dealing with caring for an aging or sick parent while trying to care for their own families and maintain a regular job. The task can be unbearably hard without help. The number one source of help is, of course, God. But help can and should also be found in other people.
God expects all of us to rally around and help those who are sick, to extend aid to the families of a sick loved one, to give them support and relief. How can we be involved in helping families who are dealing with such trials? Moreover, how can we cope if we have cancer ourselves?
How you can help
Here are some things that I learned when I was caring for my mother-in-law. I hope these tips can help you in dealing with such a trial, whether you are caring for someone who is sick or you have been told you have cancer yourself.
Stay close to God. You will need every ounce of strength that you can muster to deal with helping someone who is sick or with your own sickness. You need encouragement. Go to God and pour out your frustrations, anger, fear and sense of helplessness to Him.
Your body can be severely afflicted, and you may have a great struggle, but if you trust in God's love then your spirit will remain strong. The apostle Peter tells us, "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7, New International Version). Your greatest enemy is not the disease but despair.
Find a support group. You can find many help groups on the Internet, including one just for caregivers. Find a positive, patient friend who will listen to your frustrations and calm your fears. Churches can be a great strength when going through such difficulties. Here is a great website that can offer a lot of help and advice: "Caregiving Support & Help, Tips for Making Family Caregiving Easier".
Families must make it a team effort. Our family made a team effort to help with my mother-in-law. My sons, daughter and husband would sit with her while I took a much-needed break. They helped with taking her to the doctor and other tasks that arose. We all pulled together as a team, leading me to love and appreciate my family so much more.
Learn to accept and adapt. Accepting the battles we must go through and learning to adapt will make the course much easier. No matter what life throws at us, it's always going to be temporary. The apostle Paul, who himself suffered great trials, said: "I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:12-13).
Help lighten the load. Ask how you can help. Some common ways to lighten the load would be to offer to sit with the family member who is sick to give the caregiver a break or to bring cooked food to the family. The caregiver is often so overwhelmed with many things and details that having cooked food provided can give welcome relief. Our church congregation sends out a notice through a meal train so others can get involved with helping to carry the burden. This tool can be found online (at mealtrain.com).
Keep in touch. Don't say "keep me posted" or "let me know how you're doing." Make it a point to call and find out. This makes the person feel that you really care. Send a card. My mother-in-law often cried when she read the verses in the cards or the kind encouragements. It gave her hope. It showed that people cared and that others were in this fight with her.
What cancer can't do
We've focused on what cancer can do—the suffering it brings to people's lives—and how we can offer support. But here is an encouraging list of what cancer cannot do, limited as it is in power and scope:
It cannot cripple love,
It cannot shatter hope,
It cannot corrode faith,
It cannot eat away peace,
It cannot destroy confidence,
It cannot kill friendship,
It cannot shut out memories,
It cannot silence courage,
It cannot reduce eternal life,
It cannot quench the Spirit,
It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.
A few years have passed since the trial of struggling with my mother-in-law's illness began. I learned many lessons over its course. I learned to take one day at a time and live it as if it's our last. I learned that God will walk through the day with us—holding our hand, catching our tears and giving us great comfort.
Deuteronomy 31:6 states of the things that would stand in our way: "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." I also learned, while going through this with my mother-in-law, that I gained great strength through the help and concern from my family and loving friends.
Cancer can kill the body, but it cannot kill the hope or the reality of eternal life. Keep your focus on God and the hope He holds out to all of us, that when this body is no more we can be given a new life—a life for all eternity!
My mother-in-law succumbed to cancer. She now waits for the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-22). In her next waking moment, her body will no longer be riddled with cancer and pain.
I hope my experiences and the lessons I learned encourage and help many of you who are now going through the same challenges. Keep the faith and trust God. He will see you and your family through this or whatever else you are facing!