Dear Wife of a New Cancer Fighter:
I hate that you’re reading this letter. No one ever wants to get the phone call you just got, and no one wants to see their husband’s eyes crumple the way his did when the results came back.
Neither of you saw it coming.
We didn’t see it coming either. A normal Monday doctor’s appointment, then a flurry of tests, and a Wednesday diagnosis that would change his life—and my life—forever.
Cancer is a scary word. There are a lot of unknowns; a lot of different ways that a diagnosis can go. Before you hop on Google and read about death rates (Oh, wait? You’ve already done that? Of course you have…) I want you to know there’s HOPE.
Cancer has the potential to rip your life apart. It also can draw you and your spouse closer to each other, and to Jesus, than ever before.
So, first, stop Googling—at least temporarily. There’s a time and place for research but in these early days I want you to think bigger picture. I want you to think about LIFE, and I want you to think about the God who created your husband’s body. He knows exactly what’s happening in his cells and tumors and mind and heart.
You might feel like you know your husband best, and you might feel like you need to carry him through this terrible sick season. But you don’t. God is going to carry you both.
If you haven’t yet had a heart-to-heart conversation with God since this diagnosis, then stop reading my letter, make a cup of tea, and start venting. He wants to hear your fears and frustrations. He can even handle an F word here and there—He’s that good of a listener!
Next, block out bad advice. As the concerned phone calls and e-mails start arriving, you’ll notice others might respond to your news in ways that feel hurtful or unhelpful. Some will offer cliché and over sentimentalized phrases or give “medical” advice like trying all asparagus diets. You might even feel a bit judged by their responses—as if you or your husband did something to bring this cancer into his body. Trust me when I say they don’t mean to trivialize or judge his diagnosis. They simply don’t know what to say.
Here’s what I want you to do: give those people grace. You don’t need to respond to e-mails or phone calls, and you certainly don’t need to entertain their opinions. Simply say “Thank you” and change the subject.
Now, lest you think I’m suggesting you walk this path alone please understand you’ll need a little army to help you fight this diagnosis. Your husband probably already has a team of doctors, nurses and pharmacists. You will need a team too. Start thinking about the small and trusted group of family, friends and a counselor who can support YOU as you support HIM.
Remember, you may not be the one being wheeled into surgery or plopped into a chemo infusion room, but you are very much fighting cancer too.
There is a lot to do in the weeks to come. Doctors’ appointments are starting to litter your calendar and you’re researching specialists and insurance coverage and other bothersome things. I have lots of advice and ideas of how to navigate these early days, but I’ll save that for another time.
For now I want you to make a list of thing top five things that cause stress in your normal, pre-diagnosis life. Dirty kitchens, carpool duties and meal making should all go on the list. Then, remember that team I talked about earlier? Share your stressors with them. People want to help carry you during this time but they simply don’t know how. If you don’t give them a job, you’ll just continue to receive the annoying pep talks and health advice. No thanks, right?
Because none of us are walking in your shoes today, even someone like me, the bravest thing you can do is tell trusted family and friends how you feel and what you need. When you start feeling guilty for having such needs (and trust me, you’ll battle a lot of guilt in the months to come) then I want you to remember:
Your fight is different than his fight, but you’re in the battle together. You feel bruised, beat-up and tired because you’re carrying some of his burdens.
Lovely wife, in our marriage vows we promised “in sickness and in health.” It’s an honor to courageously walk beside a husband as he faces a cancer diagnosis, but it isn’t easy. I hope this letter makes you feel less alone.
p.s. That photo was taken in May 2012, on my husband’s last of 12 chemo treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.