The supporter experience #2: sleep

Perhaps my biggest and most consistent struggle since Andrea first discovered the lump in her right breast has been sleep. For a good chunk of September and almost all of October I was relieved if I could get four hours of sleep a night and thrilled if three hours came in one shot.

I did my best to not train my body into that pattern. I was more likely to lie in bed, restless and frustrated — yet still so as not to bother Andrea — than do something entertaining or productive. On the rare occasion I’d read a book or go to my computer and mindlessly surf for a few hours. The fact is, I had so many things on my mind that I wouldn’t remember much of what I did in those waking hours anyway.

Where at one time my sleepless nights were because of my concerns over Andrea’s health, our family and household, being unable to sleep became the ironic additional reason I couldn’t sleep.

And so it was that I would get by each day on a diminishing hours of sleep. Eventually, at the encouragement of my mother and her physician friend, I asked my family doctor for a prescription for Trazadone. I took it for three nights before I gave up on it and let my insomnia run its course.

I think it was mid-November before I was able to get a decent sleep. Since then I’ve also taken the occasional weekend nap knowing the role of sleep for staying healthy and effective for my family. The holidays were particularly nice for that.

Photo: Me, exhausted during a train ride to Quebec City, 2 days after Andrea’s diagnosis.

The supporter experience #1: don’t panic

Don’t Panic. Those are the insightful words that grace the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the fictitious guide in the earthly book by Douglas Adams. I’ve tried to live by those words for most of my adult life. When our home was broken into in September 2006; don’t panic. When United Airlines lost our luggage last Christmas; don’t panic. When I discovered I didn’t have my wallet with me when I was at the grocery checkout a couple of months ago; don’t panic.

As the loved one and primary support of someone diagnosed with cancer, don’t panic is a golden rule. Throughout the process you will hear a variety of cancer experiences from people all too willing to share whether you want them to or not, whether they understand the impacts of their stories or not. Surgeons, oncologists, nurses and anaesthetists will use words you’ve never hear before and will talk about side effects and will likely allude to long term impacts from treatments.

You may even have an experience like we had a week after Andrea’s breast cancer diagnosis. Andrea’s dentist found a cyst in her mouth and suggested it be biopsied. Thankfully it turned out to be nothing (Andrea must have bitten the inside of her cheek). However, for four stressful hours, we dealt with the possibility that the cancer wasn’t confined to Andrea’s breast.

Don’t panic.

Being the primary support means you need to be rational and calm. New language, information and ideas need to considered as part of the whole and you need to remain coherent when throwing in the towel seems the logical thing to do. It’s completely okay to be emotional so long as you don’t let your emotions interfere with being an advocate for your partner, communicating with your medical team and making sound decisions.

I’ll talk more about emotions as I share more of my supporter experience.