Cancer. Nowadays it’s a topic that a lot of people – unfortunately – can relate to. The number of new cancer cases is 439.2 out of 100,000 men and women annually. On top of that, cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for an estimated 9.6 million deaths in 2018 (source: World Health Organization).
Cancer is terrible. Naturally, it’s the worst for the patients. They need to fight the biggest battle of their lives. But cancer also has a really big impact on the people around the patient.
I am a person from the last category. My dad has had cancer. From 2010 until 2016 he had to undergo several surgeries, chemo and radiation therapy.
During the countless hospital visits, I saw a leaflet with the text ‘You don’t have cancer alone’ (Dutch: ‘Kanker heb je niet alleen’). In all fairness, the attention mainly goes to the patient. Nothing more than justified. But the situation also has a big impact on the family and friends of the patient.
I never knew how bad he actually felt, how his condition really was.
Fighting cancer together is really hard. Every person copes with the situation in a different way, trying to do their best to get through it and to understand the patient. But the harsh truth is: only cancer patients really understand each other.
I, too, tried to understand my father. Trying to imagine what he must feel, how his mood was on certain days, how he lost his energy when going to the hospital for the 500th time. Although I tried my best, I am sure I never truly did. That is impossible. I can see the impact that it had (and has) on him, but honestly, I never knew how bad he actually felt, how his condition really was.
The treatment can make a patient respond in a way the family is not used to. They can get annoyed by literally the slightest or smallest thing. It could even be triggered by using a specific word. As family or friend, you are not even aware of doing something wrong. But the patient is triggered and it makes them unreasonable for the moment. That is hard for everyone, and you sure need the patience to handle that.
Cancer is not a disease that only lasts when it is inside a body. Of course, the cancer cells are dead and after a while doctors mark you as ‘clean’. A lot of my dad’s friends said, and I’m sure it’s with the best intentions: ‘You are clean now. You should feel better. Go have fun with your life! Travel the world!’
I’m sure it is said with the very best intentions, but when you experience cancer really closely, you learn that it doesn’t work that way.
Every cancer type is different, and patients respond differently and have varying energy levels after they are ‘clean’. From an experience standpoint, my dad sure does nice things, as long as it’s not too far away or too long to travel. As much as he wishes to visit me here in South Korea, long flights are not something he is able to do. By far not everyone seems to understand that.
It’s needless to say that my dad’s situation had quite an impact on me. I have a calm personality in general, but often I was stressed. Scared that my dad would lose the battle against cancer.
Although I really tried to go on with life in a normal fashion, it led to underperformance at work. There were days I could barely focus, and I did not feel supported by my manager. One day he even said: ’Maybe you should keep your work and personal life more separated.’
If I didn’t have the patience that I have, I would probably have punched him in the face. I was struggling and worried to lose my dad, and my manager had no empathy at all. People have easy talking when it’s a situation that’s going on far away from their bed.
A couple of months later, my dad’s health got better and I had less to worry about. My work performance was improving, so it did not have any consequences, luckily.
The mother of a close friend of mine is also fighting cancer. Although I never really visited my friend’s home and thus never really got in touch with her parents, they seemed like a strong family. At the time, I worked as a cashier at a supermarket, and her parents often came by to pick up their groceries. That’s how I got that impression of them, of being a strong family.
Unfortunately, the tensions during the treatment got so high, that in the end her parents got divorced. I cannot imagine what must have feelings gone through my friend. Her parents breaking up while her mother is literally fighting for her life.
And there are many more examples of families breaking up because of tension and misunderstanding.
Not only the treatment is immensely heavy. Also, the post-cancer time can be tense for both patient and family.
The chemo and radiation therapy are really aggressive, and often it destroys more in your body than it cures. Several years after my dad’s treatment, he still faces the consequences of all his treatments and therapies.
On February 18, my dad had to undergo another surgery. His upper jaw bone is slowly dying because of all the radiation and chemotherapy that he has had. During this surgery, most of his upper teeth have been removed, as his upper jaw bone can’t hold them anymore. So his cancer seems away, but the side effects of his treatments are still visible and, unfortunately, still active.
This post was not written to gain empathy for me and my family. It was written to make people more aware that cancer is not just a disease that one single person has, but everyone around them as well. Everyone tries the best they can to make it more bearable, but everyone copes with the situation in a different way. And it could be that it aligns with the rest of the environment, sometimes it leads to the misunderstanding and even divorce, as I mentioned.
Cancer might be gone at one point, but the scars are forever left with the patient and their loved ones.