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A Loving Lesson in Care-taking: From and For Cancer Thrivers

The month of October has been Breast Cancer awareness month. Women and men have been learning more about the illness and educating those around them. 

Breast Cancer awareness shouldn't end in October though, it should carry on into each month because there are people who are going through the struggle and there are those who are taking care of the ill.

In the this blog post, we interviewed two amazing Cancer warriors and asked them about their struggles.

They share wonderful insight on how to cope, how to grow through and how to help someone through their Cancer journey.

1. Who are you and how did you find out you had cancer?

My name is Miranda but most know me as ‘pheo vs fabulous’. I’m a 30 year old cancer thriver and awareness advocate for rare disease. I’ve been living in the world of rare cancer since I’m 19, when I was first diagnosed with a 1 in a million tumor called a pheochromocytoma. It’s a tumor that secretes adrenaline, causing your body to suddenly be overloaded with adrenaline with no notice. It’s life threatening if not properly managed and surgically removed, it also requires life long follow up.

Due to the lack of information regarding this disease, it’s very difficult for even doctors to understand fully. I didn’t hear the word ‘cancer’ until I was 24. I was receiving follow up yearly to monitor for recurrence, to ensure I wasn’t one of the 10% that had it return. Except the symptoms never left me even after surgery, and I knew there was something wrong.

For 4 years my labs came back fairly normal, and it was dismissed as having anxiety. Until one day, October 10th, that all changed. My routine labs finally exposed the presence of adrenaline in my body, and upon further investigation, we would discover that I now had metastatic disease.

Once pheochromocytoma becomes metastatic, (spreads to distant sites) it’s no longer curable. So I was pronounced as having terminal cancer at 24 years old. I vowed in that moment to share my patient experience with this disease to fill in the gaps of information for others in the future.

Later becoming an advocate for rare my conditions, created the community of pheovsfabulous. I made a promise that day that this disease will never take my ‘fabulous’ which to me is who you are. It’s your smile, your light, your laugh, beauty, sarcasm, humour, all of the little things that make us who we are.

 

2. How did this change your life in both negative and positive aspects?

Hearing I had metastatic disease had a lot of negative impacts due to the shock. Going from living a fairly normal life and making plans, being a 24 year old woman who was very motivated and craved control. To having all of that be dismantled in seconds, well it was a lot of adapting and overcoming. Positively, this disease in my opinion brought me my husband. We began dating during my first diagnosis at 19, and it showed me what unconditional love looks like. Negatively, I’ve never experienced anything ‘normal’ as a young adult should. However I’ve always seen two sides to that, I may not have lived normally, but it’s never been boring. I sometimes crave the mundane life that most people have, but often am grateful for the experiences and view of life that most will never get.

 

3. How have other people been of help to you  after your diagnosis, during treatment etc.?

Throughout my journey, there’s been different stages of this disease. A lot of quick changes, ups and downs. When you’re palliatively treated, it means that you’re being treated to manage symptoms and control quality of life. Since there’s no cure, palliative is a way of being treated to extend life and be comfortable while doing so. Honestly, my husband and I have taken on most of it ourselves. However, if I’m speaking from an advice point of view, I will share the most helpful things that can be offered to a loved one with cancer.

 

4. What advice can you give to outsiders about how to PROPERLY comfort someone going through or coming out of a cancer struggle?


It goes without saying but most of us will offer to be there, without offering something specific. It’s normal, most of us don’t know what could help the person the most so we leave it generalized for that person to decide. That being said, most of us have trouble asking for help. Which is why being specific is necessary.

Specific examples of this include:

While in treatment, our best friends would come and disinfect our house from top to bottom so when we’d arrive home everything was done and we had one less worry. Having an extra clean environment is so important when sick. It removes a big cost of having to have a company do it, and saves the caregiver the time of having to do so.

Bringing groceries or comfort foods without asking, when doing this, try to find out if the person has specific dietary needs or intolerances. Receiving homemade chicken soup or some meals for the week is incredibly helpful. ESPECIALLY when you’ve just come home from an extended hospital stay or emergency visit.

Offering to take care of nagging tasks like phone calls or emails is a great way of helping someone who’s sick. These seemingly small things that feel like the world on us.

Depending on the person’s situation, rides or accompanying to appointments is also very helpful. I always go with my husband, however there’s been times where HE has needed medical care and hesitates to go because he doesn’t want to leave me alone. So having someone offer to make sure I’m okay and support me while he’s in the hospital is always a huge stress relief.

As far as practicality goes, try and think of all the things that you take care of in a day. Then think of how that might be difficult for someone fighting cancer. Brainstorm what you think could be helpful, it doesn’t have to be a big thing. It can be such a small gesture but to us it can change our entire mindset. Even offering to walk someone’s dogs is huge.

Reminding the person that you care, of their strength, of who they are, that’s been one of the most rewarding. When I receive a book, flowers, a card, a surprise coffee, any type of thoughtful reminder… typically it’s when I’m having a tough day. Gestures like this literally can melt away all of the worries in that moment and potentially give that person the extra boost they need to make it through the week.

This is actually the reason I am an ambassador for the non profit fighting pretty, they do exactly that. Remind cancer thrivers of their strength and beauty through ‘pretty packages’. If you’ve ever seen me hold my sparkly pink boxing gloves, that’s my reminder that I’m fighting pretty every day.

All of the above are ways you can support someone in practical ways, taking a worry or two off their plate. I like to break it down in a way where I consider emotional support, physical support, and financial. Ask yourself how you can help a friend or loved one in those categories. I’ve listed some of the emotional and physical ways of helping above.

Financially, being sick can add up quickly. There’s costs people many of us don’t even consider unless thrust into the situation ourselves. It’s not just medical bills that cost, it’s the uninsured costs that burden us. Transportation, hotels, parking fees at the hospital are 25$ each visit, food, mobility aids, home care, adaptive equipment for the home, the list goes on. This doesn’t include integrative therapies, physio, and other needs necessary to healing. It’s a lot, and most of us will never ever speak about it.

Some ways you can support a loved one financially without making it a ‘big thing’ is sending a gift card to say “next parking is on me!” Or if you know what treatments they do, you can say “next appointment is covered, happy healing!”

For me, because of the nature of my illness, cancer is something I will live with forever. This is an ongoing lifestyle I will have to uphold. For most, we assume once they ‘beat cancer’ all of the stress and therapies and commitments go away. It’s not how it works, you don’t finish treatment and it’s finished. It will continue to be with them emotionally, physically, and financially.

My best advice is to know that, understand that, and learn how to support them in the different stages of the disease. Even the ‘after’, take the time to know how you can support them emotionally and not just act like it’s behind them. That’s often more damaging and hurtful than anything else.

If you don’t know what to say, just listen. Give the person room to speak, and truly actively listen. You don’t have to offer advice always, or ‘solutions’. It’s not as helpful as you’d think to be told how to eat or that you should do a certain type of yoga. We are exhausted already, so trying to explain why you can’t eat a certain food or why you’re unable to safely do something is just not our idea of being supported.

There’s so much information about this on the internet, what to say and what NOT to say. Cancer thrivers will tell you themselves what is helpful and not. Honestly? Just ask. Everyone is different, and we all have different ways we like to be supported. Some don’t want to be consider a ‘fighter’, you’ll notice I used the term thriver throughout this entire interview. That’s because I don’t want to be fighting with something the rest of my life. I don’t want to just survive, I want to live, to thrive. However, some identify in their stage of their journey with being a warrior. That’s what helps them, so it’s best to either ask, or just be mindful with language. Words are so powerful!

I shared this with you on my cancerversary, it’s October 10th. It’s 7 years after my initial diagnosis today. Celebrating a day like this is so important to me because it shows there’s hope. I beat the odds and changed the statistics, and that’s something to be celebrated.

I’ll leave you with this: never pity your loved one, and don’t resort to the cliche phrases. Empower them with information, help be their advocate, and most of all… remember who they ARE! Help them let cancer not take away their ‘fabulous’.

 

1. Who are you and how did you find out you had cancer?

My name is Meliz Halil and I am 38 years old. In 2017 on 1st of February ( on my wedding anniversary) I was diagnosed with her2 negative stage 2 breast cancer. I found the lump in 2016 December just after Christmas. At the time my aunty whose Like a mother to me had a scare and went through a biopsy and as a family we were really nervous about the results.


One evening in the shower I was thinking about my aunty and hoping her results will be all good and realised that I have never done any self examination to myself before. I decided to check my boobs in the shower and that is when I found the lump. I always used to think how can we tell if it’s a lump with the rest of the little bumps we usually have on our breasts but, trust me when I say you will know.


Once I returned back from Dubai in January, I went to see my General Practitioner immediately as the lump was still there. After seeing my GP, I was revered to hospital real quick, I mean in 4 days time I was called in to have an ultra sound scan and a biopsy on the day. I was asked to bring someone in with me but I didn’t think that was necessary as I thought the same as many cancer patients, it won't be me, it’s nothing to worry about, little did I know I was wrong.

 

When they asked me to come in to get my results on the 1st of February I went in with my husband. Everyone around me was nervous and anxious except me. I was adamant that it wasn't cancer, until I sat in that room and my breast doctor just said the words out loud. I was very confused and as she started talking about it in more detail I remember not being able to understand anything she said. Maybe I was in shock or denial at the time, I remember my husband looking at me tearfully and said, "It’s cancer Meliz but don’t worry everything will be alright." I couldn’t cry! I thought I was in the room for someone else.

 

2. How did this change your life in both negative and positive aspects?

Going through my pictures I saw photos of myself during my chemo time. Looking at my photos when I used to be bald, I’m just overwhelmed by my strength and sometimes sad because of what cancer did to me. 

When I look through my photos I see a warrior and a bada** fighter!

Then there are moments when I see a cancer patient, a victim or the girl that lost all her beauty to cancer! 

Luckily I’m a strong character and I have overcome all of this, I have learnt to accept, embrace and love myself. 

Before I was diagnosed with cancer my goal was my beauty, staying fit, always looking my best, however, after been diagnosed with cancer my goals in life have changed!  My goal was singular, get better to see my baby girl grow up (when I was diagnosed my daughter was only 1.5 years old she’s now a beautiful 6 year old).

Before cancer I used to worry about my weight and how I looked in clothes, now when I have people staring at my scars and my breasts and I don’t care! Beating cancer gave me confidence. 

 

3. How have other people been of help to you  after your diagnosis, during treatment?

Eren (my husband) was incredible. He was angry (we both were) at the diagnosis because it didn’t seem fair. It never is, I guess, but he was an incredible support to me, he never left my side, and I am very grateful to have him in my life. 

My friends and family probably cried more than me when they found out! However they were  all great, incredible and helped and supported me a lot. They took good care of my daughter. Took her out and bought her gifts. They made sure I was never alone and always came round to see me. Sometimes being at home everyday and going through treatment can make us feel very lonely. It’s was always nice to have people around who never left my side. Of course, I lost a few friends on my journey with cancer. But this never bothered me because if a friend can’t support you during your worse days then they shouldn’t be with you during your good days. 

 

4. What advice can you give to outsiders about how to PROPERLY comfort someone going through or coming out of a cancer struggle?

I would say that life is fragile, nothing is certain, and there are very few things that matter, just family, friends, love, and kindness. Take every opportunity to make good memories, enjoy them, and never do anything that doesn’t feel right or make you happy. Life really is too short.

The moral of the story? Cancer can creep up on the youngest or even the healthiest people, and those of us on the outside may not know how to deal with it.

It's important for us, as caregivers, to listen to the needs of our loved ones and not give unsolicited advice or say things that are less than helpful.

Have a look at the Breast Cancer Awareness collection before it disappears.

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