My most vivid memory related to my grandfather’s cancer is the time I had accompanied him to the hospital for one of his radiation sessions. The blues and whites of the hospital walls, the sterile smell of disinfectants and the stream of waiting patients added to the solemness of the situation at hand.
Of the other cancer patients around us, many were old and a few children. All of them seemed to be in great pain. Some were crying, others were complaining aloud about their discomfort. Their suffering echoed across the waiting rooms and the corridors.
And then there was my grandfather, the only one among them who did not show even a hint of pain. He must have felt the pain; I’m quite sure he did. But he braved it and wouldn’t let it show. He held it together so well. Maybe it was because I was watching. He didn’t want to let me know how hard it was for him. Even at that difficult moment, he thought of me, of his family, dealing with our discomfort above his.
Growing up, I was very fond of my grandfather. We would visit him every summer. He would find out what new hobby or sport we had picked up at school that year, and he would make arrangements for us to practice that in his own backyard. One year a new tennis court was constructed at his house, the next year he built a swimming pool – everything just to accommodate our passing likes and dislikes. No effort was too great when it came to his family. For him, anything that would make us comfortable and happy was worth undertaking.
Today, I am a qualified psychologist. I am trained to help people deal with their emotions and their reactions to difficult situations. So when my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer in July 2019, I found myself having to deal with my own reaction to this difficult news.
My first reaction was the same as everyone else in my family. We were upset and in denial. I understood that we were going through the ‘grief model’. When there is upsetting news, such as a cancer diagnosis, our first reaction is to hope that the diagnosis is incorrect. Then, when it becomes apparent that the diagnosis is accurate, we tend to feel anger at the situation, after which we try to reason if we could have avoided such a situation by acting differently in the past.
Although it is natural to be upset, it is best to try to accept the situation. This can be done by opening up about how we feel. A lot of times, we try to suppress our true feelings. The cancer patient suppresses his frustration because he knows that the caregivers are already worried about him. Meanwhile, the caregivers avoid talking about their fears because they do not want to scare the patient. In such a situation, it is good to find someone to talk to about how you feel. This could be someone from your personal life, or a professional counsellor who is trained to help you. Joining support groups or communities where you can listen to others who have been in a similar situation provides you with a better understanding of how best to deal with the situation. From their experience, you can learn what to do and what not to do. It also provides a safe platform to put forth your own feelings and ideas, so that others can help you, and even benefit from your experience. Recently, I attended a small gathering called ‘Talk Your Heart Out’. Cancer carers and survivors were sharing about how they dealt with cancer. It was a sort of support group and listening to others talk about their journey helped me open up about my own journey, with my grandfather’s cancer.
In my experience, facing a difficult situation like a cancer diagnosis induces a feeling of loneliness. The best antidote to this is to talk to others and address your feelings. This will help you move your focus towards maintaining a normal life even as the treatment continues. Certain changes in your daily routine and lifestyle are inevitable. But it is good for the patient to continue with activities that they enjoy, to provide a sense of normalcy even in the midst of the cancer treatment. This could include enjoying your favourite food or hobbies. Any physical activity, even something as small as walking inside the house, will help divert your mind and refresh your body.
I would also like to address the caregiver’s mental battles here. It is very taxing, both physically and emotionally, to take care of an ailing person – we must remain strong and confident so as to keep them in high spirits and positive about their treatment journey. Therefore, it is important for the caregiver to look after themselves, even more than they normally would.
During my grandfather’s treatment, I found myself slipping into the role of counsellor with members of my family and with my grandfather himself. Our large family had come under the same roof for the duration of the treatment. This meant that those who were unaccustomed to living with each other had to make adjustments in the new environment. I found myself helping different members of the family to be more patient and tolerant with each other. It was a stressful situation for everyone involved and the effort should be to direct the emotions to a positive stream. One beautiful outcome of this was how close and knitted our family became in those days, and we have carried that forward to this day, and hereafter too.
In December 2019, my grandfather had to undergo surgery as the cancer has metastasized to his liver. The surgery was successful and he is currently on oral chemotherapy. My father has many friends in the medical profession. He consulted them and also visited several hospitals in Delhi before deciding where the treatment should be undertaken. As we continue to fight cancer together, it is important to remember to channel our emotions into a positive stream. There are various cognitive and behavioural techniques that help us to gain control over our emotions. Consulting a therapist to learn more about these can be helpful. If this may seem difficult, you can speak to others who have experienced something similar.
If you are interested in attending a ‘Talk Your Heart Out’ session or know anyone else who would benefit from this, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to Anoushka talk about her grandfather’s cancer.