A cancer diagnosis is scary and totalizing. Hospital visits, financial stress, and lingering uncertainty affect the entire family unit. Through Brad Grammer's story of walking with his wife (Laura) through leukemia, lessons emerge on how to support families well as they grapple with cancer.
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My final takeaways from Brad’s interview were threefold.
1) Find available support networks. If you or someone you love is going through cancer, reach out to available support networks. Find a counselor or a support group. And if you don't know where to start, a great resource for those of you in Indianapolis is the Cancer Support Community. They are located off of 71 Street near Eagle Creek. And the Cancer Support Community offers free resources to those with cancer as well as their caregivers. There's a yoga studio, community gardens, cooking classes and one on one counseling available. The Cancer Support Community can be found online at cancersupportindy.org
2) There are so many ways to help. If someone in your office or community is journeying with cancer, there are so many ways to help. Organized meals, offer rides, give Starbucks gift cards or help to process those medical bills. Reach out and offer what is in your power to give.
3) Beware of social niceties. We so often default to easy clichés or trite phrases or giving advice when it's not actually wanted. Take more time to actually listen and weigh your words before offering canned comfort.
If you want more of Brad’s words of insight, here are some of the highlights from our conversation.
The immediate aftermath of a diagnosis can be a really chaotic time.
08:33- Brad Grammer
I think part of the shock of that is you don't get any time to think about it. Within two hours of being told we were in the hospital, you started treatment in the hospital. They told her she'd be there for 30 days that she wouldn't be able to work for a year. And me being the person who runs the finances of the home, I'm thinking I'm gonna have to sell my house because she made two thirds of the income.
Counseling is important
09:15- Brad Grammer
And for me, I'd have to go home and cry myself to sleep for a couple weeks. Fortunately, I was somebody who already understood the value of having a therapist in your life, somebody that you can trust to go to and talk. And so, I hadn't been to him in a while so I'm like well this is the time to go. So, I went to him.
It's time to back on the couch exactly because I learned, as an adult, an adult skill and many adults haven't learned this. But when you hit an area or a season of time that you don't know what to do, you ask for help just like what we teach our kids. If you don't know how to do this one task, then ask the adult to help you. Well, that's what we do as adults. Ideally, we should be asking for help when we're hitting a difficult season of life. So that's what I did.
As a caregiver, Brad learned that his mindset was really important
10:06- Brad Grammer
I went to him (a counselor) and he asked me why I was cried myself to sleep at night and I was thinking about her dying, my wife, and how my kids are going to be affected. And so, he said, "Well do you want her to die?" "No!" I was offended that you asked that. Please clarify. "Well, you know Brad, she's alive today and you have her today so each day you can just take one day at a time and face the day and know that as long as she is alive, there is hope and you keep engaging and you never have to tell your boys about the possibility of dying even though she was getting a 20 percent chance to live."
We just don't share that information with them; it's too much for kids to handle. It's hard enough for me as an adult to handle that. So, I took his advice. It was invaluable advice just to, because I didn't realize, I think...I don't know if it's an American way of living, but I didn't realize how much I'm living in the future before it comes. I was thinking, planning, what's coming next. And that experience forced me to face the moment, live in the moment today.
The importance of crying and support groups
15:04– Brad Grammer
You know the American mentality. I can pull myself by my own bootstraps and I can, I can, I can still make it. That's really important to, like, allow yourself to be weak and to cry and invite people into that life. There's got to be at least a couple people that you can invite into that. For some people who maybe don't have those kinds of relationships, what they find is having a support group for whether you've like, there's a there's a support group for people with leukemia and lymphoma and there for people with the disease as well as those that are caretakers.
They were, I didn't go for very long, but I just remember the great piece of advice that they gave us, like get away, take a break, go on a retreat by yourself. And I just couldn't do it because I was like, "But what if my wife dies while I'm away?" like I would just think. And they were just saying, you got to do it anyway. And they were like, at that moment it was a great piece of advice, I needed to get away.
17:18– Practical ways to help: meals, rides, gifts, and health insurance
It was really beautiful because both of our workplaces were jarred quite a bit by this. Because our work communities loved us and cared about us as a family as well as individuals. And so, one thing that they did, it was just so amazing, is that both my wife's workplace and my workplace appointed, they had an appointed person and so if I needed anything, I called one of those people and said hey I need this. And that's all I had to do, and they would set off and contact people to do whatever, whether and they set up a meal plan. And this is a meal plan for a whole year wasn't just for two weeks when you're set up for a whole year.
She had to be either in the hospital every day or go to the hospital every day. So, if she wasn't, if she was at home then she needed a ride to the hospital. A lot of times, I could do it. But there are times I just couldn't drive, and Laura needs a ride. And that's a particular need and the fact that she just doesn't want anybody because she wants somebody that's comfortable with her throwing up in their car.
So, and you know, you want to feel comfortable with this person to some degree in order to throw up in their car.
House cleaning and gifts
Some ladies were so beautiful, they just would come and just clean my house. They didn't even ask me. They said, they would just say, "Hey, we're coming over this day and we're gonna come clean your house." It even, just, during the Christmas holiday season I had somebody just offer to do this and I said of course, and they just took the boys Christmas shopping for us as their parents. It felt so thoughtful.
One of the most amazing things this one person did is a lady that said, I don't, "I'm trying to figure out what I can do to support you. I thought I'm going to do what I'm good at." So, she normally is in H.R. and businesses and she said let me just handle all your medical bills. So, I would give all my medical bills to her, because unfortunately, you know insurance companies would deny a certain percentage naturally just because they're trying to not pay for everything. And so, they would deny bills that are meant to be covered by the insurance companies. So, she would handle all that problem and all she would do is, that like she'd hand me a bill and say pay this bill.
21:01- Learning to ask for help
You know, one thing I was thinking about is that I would communicate to people is what a friend of mine who actually is going through cancer treatment at that time...he was a pastor himself and told me to be sure and just tell people what you want. Anything. It doesn't have to be even a legitimate thing. If you want a gift card to Starbucks, just say so. You know, so like, I would ask for, you know gas cards because we were driving in the hospital all the time and they're quite far away from home. And then, or I just ask for Starbucks cards. I was set for Starbucks for a year.
23:16 – Stupid advice, comments, and small talk
There was, I think when my wife was sick with cancer, people come up with all kinds of things like, well you know you read that, like, if you just didn't drink too much milk...this will really help with the, you know, that cancer diminishing cancer cells and stuff. So, people come up with all kinds of ideas and they will offer that information without thinking, like maybe the person doesn't want to hear that information or maybe their information is very inaccurate and not helpful at all. And so, that can be kind of discouraging, just to have people kind of throw information at you without checking to see if you even want to hear it.
You know, I think, probably one of the things I would really encourage people to do is spend more time just asking questions and listening, just to find out what that person really would be encouraged by or benefited by. Maybe they don't get encouraged at all by giving advice about how to deal with your cancer. They just want you to listen and have somebody to cry with, you know.
26:12- The importance of listening
And so, I think just really listening and hearing what a person's life is like each day can be way more valuable than giving any advice or asking questions like that. That's, I think, for me where people most miss. They assume, maybe, that you're, you're dealing with it better than you are and there's an assumption that, that you could have just a normal conversation when, in actuality, it's hard for you to even have a normal conversation. And the best thing you could do is just ask questions and listen.
27:31- Tell your story
There’re quite a few things. I was actually thinking even just this conversation with you this morning is healing because even though there's so many things that have been years later, just to be able to look back and talk about it is very encouraging. It's part of life.
31:58- It takes time to heal
And also, not putting a time limit on when I need to heal. I think that stresses some people out as they feel like they need to be healed within three to six months or something. And sometimes it takes years to recover from something and that's OK. I mean, our culture does not have patience for people and does not respect that. But to honor being a human being you must respect the fact that there are some things that just take a long time to heal from and it's OK. Yeah. You don't have to shame yourself for that.
32:35- The perils of small talk
Because we don't really have any guidance or education on these things. People don't know how to handle it. And so, they every time somebody sees you, they'll ask you how are things going. And some days that'll just trigger, you know, like I feel horrible. I feel like I'm going to die, and I want to punch you right now.
34:20– Learn to ask better good questions
Exactly and, like, and be able to equip people with different kinds of questions is, is important on a social interaction. But we don't, where did we learn that skill? It's not like you really have somebody who will teach you that. But ideally, it would be great if, if there's somebody that could teach us like, OK when somebody with a really hard time, these questions are actually better, yeah, then the social niceties that don't work. Like the social niceties, what they come across as is belittling the person's life and making it seem like it's manageable when that person feels like my life is not manageable. I am out of control. I feel horrible and not feeling that they're free to say that.
35:47- Get a therapist and go to a support group
I would say definitely go to a therapist or go to a support group for the thing that you're going through. You don't realize how important that is, just to have a listening ear, a compassionate response, somebody who can say, "Oh me too I'm going through the same thing," how invaluable that is.
36:23- Ask people for help
So, it's really important to always pursue people ask for help. Don't try and be the independent, I can handle this myself. That will not get you through this time at all. It'll only create problems for you later if not immediately. So always seek out help.