Professions of a Panelist

Last week, K.T. and I had the opportunity to sit on a patient panel with 4 others at the UAB Head and Neck Cancer Survivors Support Group meeting that I’ve been a part of for about a year or so. The questions prompted us to traipse back through the hard days of our journeys and dig down into the rawness of it all. The questions surrounded fear, mortality, diagnosis, and heartache among other topics, but even though I was there to share my story in order to potentially help others, I left feeling that I was the one that was helped instead.

The meeting started off with each of us introducing ourselves, including the UAB faculty and staff that so graciously give their time to be there as a resource to our patients. Several questions were then asked to the patients to kick off the panel portion, and then a question to the caretakers was posed. “What the most rewarding thing and the hardest thing you faced as a caretaker?…”

K.T. spoke up and described the delicate moments from when Dr. Carroll called to tell him that surgery went well but his wife of 2.5 years likely had cancer until the moment Dr Carroll told me himself. He took us through his emotions and the unimaginable task of breaking the news to my parents and his, who were all there waiting for me to come out of recovery. And he briefly touched on the decision he had to make to wait to let Dr. Carroll tell me the news when he did his rounds rather than him telling me and not being able to answer the questions I would inevitably have.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard this story. K.T. has shared these moments with me several times before, the first being surgery day. He had joined me in the hospital bed after everyone had gone home for the evening and he told me about all I missed while I took my very long surgical nap. But at each different point in this journey that I hear him describe those long, grueling moments of that day, another layer is exposed and I learn something about life.

For the first time this week, I feel like I truly grasped the weight that K.T. has had to bear for me and with me through all of this (which all of the sudden seemed heavier to me than actually having the cancer myself because it’s not just his own load he’s carrying). He’s had to carry parts of mine too. We’ve had countless conversations where I’ve apologized for what we’ve gone through with my health, and I’ve spent hours praying that he hasn’t built up resentment towards me for all the slack he’s had to take up while I’ve recovered and adjusted to a new normal, physically and emotionally. Deep down I know he hasn’t because that’s not his heart, but this realization of the heavy load he’s been gracefully carrying was an important one for me.

But what does this realization have to do with any of you? And why even share this kind of thing? Because there is absolutely an essential balance between being concerned with what is going on inside of you and understanding that your close friends and family are experiencing a battle of their own alongside your diagnosis that they weren’t expecting either.

For most people going through a tough health issue, it’s hard to see past the hard days that inevitably come more often than you wish they did. It’s hard to see past the emotional torment you’ve fought through because you didn’t have any control over the physical that caused it. And it’s hard to look in the mirror and not totally recognize the person and the differences that have also happened because they had to. But your family and your close friends have the same basic human need to be understood, just the same as you do.

When the days are hard for you, they may feel guilty that they can’t offer you more help to ease your pain. When your emotions and thoughts are all over the place and unpredictable they may feel like they fall short of knowing what to say to comfort you. And when you look in the mirror and feel insecure about what you see, they may wish they could fix it or boost your confidence. But the truth of the matter is they can’t.

Now this is by no means meant to make you or anyone else feel guilty. You are not selfish for thinking and feeling the things you do. These are all very normal things that happen in the process of healing on both sides. But the key here is understanding its a process and that requires forward movement. Getting stuck in a rut isn’t fruitful for you or the people who love you. So in and effort to keep myself honest and share my story with you as I’ve promised to do, I have to encourage you to lift your eyes and try to see things from a different perspective and keep bettering yourself.

Ask yourself these few questions:

  • Am I complaining too much?
  • Blaming too much on cancer?
  • Am I making excuses for my behavior because of what I’ve been through?
  • Have I picked up the load that I’m capable of, now that I’m past things a little?
  • Am I doing my best to live a life that makes me proud and pleases the Lord?

Those are hard questions, and I have just as much personal identification and work to do within myself as the next guy, but cancer or not, being honest with ourselves and giving life our best each and every day is worth it.

Now, I hope it doesn’t take a patient panel or a story you’ve heard several time to awaken your spirit from the famous fog that cancer brings into our headspace, but I hope and pray you lift your head and take another step towards your new normal and the BEST normal that the Lord has waiting for you!

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