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Lessons (L)earned: Life With Chemo



I received an email from a friend with the subject line, Life With Chemo.  His wife had just gone through a double mastectomy and he was looking for advice about her upcoming chemotherapy and the impact that it would have on his family.  When I sat down to write a response, I had difficulty remembering the specific details about how my wife Jen and I managed with two small children during that time, but the following big picture ideas came to mind: 


HI John,


These questions made me realize how little I remember the specifics from the Chemo Days.   Here is my best advice for this very challenging time, some of which I got from others, and some of which Jen and I learned through the experience:


1. Get ready for a really difficult year. 

This proved to be good advice because it set aside a finite period of time and gave me some perspective.  It is such a regimented process (chemo schedules, surgery dates, etc.) that it does lend itself well to a timeline and a kind of emotional circuit training.


2.  You have an opportunity to build intimacy in your relationship during this period.

You will see some scary stuff over the next year and you will also have some incredibly tender moments.  By really leaning into the tender moments (when it is just the two of you) you will gain something that will last far beyond the difficult year.


3. During this year, it's more about the body than the mind.

I'm a therapist so I tend to lean more towards the processing of feelings. And because I have a lot of therapists in my family, we did our fair share of processing. But, that said, I quickly realized that during the year of cancer and its treatment feelings could wait and this was more about getting Jen's body through chemo.  This was NOT something that I did willfully, it just kind of happened instinctually.  For example: I'm not someone who dislikes therapy and we went to one couples therapy session during the chemo time.  Immediately, I just knew we were in the wrong place.  We ended up taking restorative yoga classes together that were really great. 


4. You will still have fun.

I remember a lot of really good times.  Especially with male friends.  A lot of the usual worries about being a "responsible dad" go out the window and people really make room for you to have some fun.  I'm not saying that it got extra crazy with friends -- actually it was pretty tame -- but it was quite pronounced that there was something extraordinary happening in my life and it was important for me to appreciate the time I had away from my family.


5. At the end of the year, get ready for difficult times to come back in waves.

I think the hardest part for me is when I think we are done and then I get reminded that in certain (and often unpredictable) ways cancer and chemo will be with us for the rest our lives.  While Jen is now cancer-free and the treatments are over, there are always big and small reminders.  With that said, nothing comes close to that year.  This is probably premature to talk about now, but it's something to keep in mind.


6. Kids and families are resilient.

You will have some major decisions to make over the next year (treatment options, how much to tell the kids, how much help to get, how much to plan) and it will make you better at big life decisions.  The experience of the bottom falling out of your family’s life and then having to put back it together again becomes a template for things big and small.   In moments when I might have once just let things slide or over reacted, Jen and I now have a hard earned guidebook.  The best feeling is when you see your children open the guidebook for themselves and you realize that they got something important and positive out of the experience too.


I hope this was helpful in some small way and I would be happy to talk more. 


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