Friday, August 3, 2012

Missing a piece of my heart

A friend and mentor of mine ended her battle with breast cancer in July, leaving this world behind for a better place—a place without chemo, radiation, surgery, hair loss, fatigue, side effects and the physical and emotional pain that goes with having breast cancer. Sue was a member of our beloved “volleyball team,” a group of seven spirited women who are still known for the Thursday night volleyball games that we played for most of our adult lives, even through we’ve not stepped on the court in almost a decade.

Now that most of us are in our 50s, we let go of volleyball choosing instead movies and dinners out, sampling favorite homemade desserts and watching Donald Driver on “Dancing With the Stars.” We share photos of grandchildren, stories of retirement and concerns about the economy. We are a support group for each other as our aging bodies give way to a variety of maladies, and when breast cancer found me three-and-a-half years ago, it was Sue’s positive outlook and wise counsel that helped show me the way.

This post is for her.

Odds are you know someone who is fighting breast cancer, has beaten it, or has lost a loved one to it. Sadly, you likely know someone who has not yet discovered that she will become a breast cancer patient. A cancer diagnosis can lead to a feeling of helplessness, but—and here’s the point of this post—I wonder if there is something we can do, collectively, to help each other. When I was at my lowest, Sue shared a book that provided me with a new perspective. Another friend sent notes of encouragement every day during 16 weeks of chemo treatments. Doctors and nurses went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure I understood all the options and was as comfortable as possible.

So I’d like to share a few of my own ideas about battling cancer and invite you to add yours. Once you’ve added your ideas to the bottom of this post, send a link to this page to your friends and family members and ask them to add theirs. Together, we can build a resource that can help people transition from that feeling of helplessness over a cancer diagnosis to the confidence that comes from knowing that others have found these ideas useful. Since every cancer patient is unique it can’t be “one-list-fits-all,” but it’s a menu of ideas that people—those with cancer and those who want to help—can choose from.
  1. Join the Army of Women. I learned about this organization a couple of years ago and have since participated in two studies aimed at gaining greater knowledge of the disease, the development of more effective treatments and, someday, finding a cure. Joining is easy (and free) and healthy women are just as important to the cause as women with breast cancer. Many of the studies can be accessed online or by phone. 
  2. Read the book “Anti-Cancer – A New Way of Life” by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD. It’s a thought-provoking book about the tangible things everyone can do to prevent cancer, based on the premise that we all have cancer cells in our bodies and that the suppression of our immune systems gives the cancer cells strength. The author is scientist, doctor and a cancer survivor. 
  3. Avoid hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I remember only too well the discomfort brought on by menopause’s hot flashes and night sweats, and a respected endocrinologist told me that the known risk for breast cancer related to HRT was 1:1000. Good odds, right? Turns out my cancer loved HRT and I’m here to tell you that 1:1,000,000 odds are not good enough if you turn out to be the 1.
  4. If you have cancer, know there are options. I was initially referred to a medical oncologist and facility that felt “wrong.” After a couple of difficult appointments, I explained my feelings to the doc who provided the referral and was immediately given another option. It made all the difference in the world. Trust your gut. (My doctor, chemo nurse and the team at the Carbone Cancer Center in Madison will always be my heroes.)
  5. Read everything you can. Some doctors will say that the wealth of information available online is confusing to patients and better left unread, but a good doctor will take the time to review the information with you and explain whether or not it makes sense for your cancer. Researching available information and asking questions can give patients a greater sense of control.
  6. Want to help a cancer patient? “Just do it.”  Fighting cancer is a full-time job and anything friends can do to make life easier will be appreciated. Mow the lawn, take the kids to school, prepare a meal—whatever you do will be appreciated. Asking the question “what can I do to help?” serves up one more task. Better to “just do it.”
  7. Support the caregiver. As difficult as cancer is for the patient, it can be even more difficult for the family member or friend who is along for the ride. Help that person any way you can think of, whether it’s cooking a meal, offering to take over caregiver responsibilities for a day, or checking in by phone. Taking care of a cancer patient can be a very lonely, scary job. 
  8. Eat well. Giving your body the fuel it needs is important for both the patient and the caregiver, and taking the time to prepare healthy flavorful meals can be difficult during stressful times. Make it a priority to find out which healthy foods have the most appeal to the cancer patient and to keep plenty of those items on hand. Preparing simple healthy meals that can be frozen and re-heated is a terrific way for friends to support cancer patients and caregivers.
  9. Read “Cancer for Two” by David Balch. The book is about a caregiver’s experience—Balch’s wife has breast cancer—and he shares the emotional journey for both the patient and caregiver. My husband, Pete, and I both read it and found it to be reassuring. (Sue, my angel, thank you for recommending it.)
  10. Pray. I’m not an overtly religious person but there is comfort knowing that a higher power is on the cancer journey with you. You are never alone. 
Susan Rhode, 1955-2012
 Dear God, I know you will welcome Sue to your world and that her kind heart and wry sense of humor will brighten your days. Comfort her husband, Scott, daughters Kristie and Jenny, and their husbands and children.  Help us help others with cancer and to find away to bring an end to this disease. 

Missing a piece of my heart,


  1. A beautiful tribute to your friend and mentor, Sheree. All I can add to your great list is to amplify point 7 - for any man who has a spouse, family member, or friend battling cancer - be the best caregiver/partner/supporter you can. And, regarding your point 4 - your story is only one of the reasons my wife and I give generously to support the Carbone Cancer Center at the UW. That's an activity EVERYONE can engage in, to the extent their finances allow.

  2. Take the time to enjoy them- share laughter and love. In my 56 years I have only had two very close friends. One in childhood and one as an adult. Penny was my dearest and only "best friend" in childhood and Sally was my sister-friend as an adult. Penny is battling cancer right now and Sally lost her battle some years ago. Sally told me she was so appreciative for the friendship my former husband and I had with her. She and I would curl up in a blanket together and talk or just take naps together- whatever worked for her. We laughed and talked and teased as we had always done. IN fact, my former mate teased her one night about taking off her cap to see her bald head as he had secretly been fantasizing about it-- she laughed and laughed hysterically and said it was one of the best evenings she had had in a long time- it was hard for her to watch people tip toe around her, fearful of saying the wrong thing- Sally wanted to feel "normal"
    When I first learned of Penny's situation I took the time to write her stories about some of our adventures as little girls and let her know what am important person she was during and childhood and still today- I love Penny and wanted to tell her just how much- we had lunch and hugged and laughed about some of the silly things we did when children.

    1. Geralynne, thanks for sharing your story. I love the idea of putting down on paper the memories of special shared times. In the end, it seems our lives are about relationships. Celebrating them while we are living is important.