Throwback Thursday- 10 Things I've Learned in Two Years of Watching my Amazing Aunt Fight Cancer

by - Thursday, September 08, 2016

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, and when I started poking around looking for resources to send people to, I was shocked just how sparse and often negative the personal writing around Ovarian and Metastatic cancers is. Breast cancer has the market cornered in a way I don't think is necessarily useful to everyone.

 My Aunt Ann, who I have mentioned many times here, has been living with cancer at different levels since they first found a tumor in her abdomen over two years ago. A lot has happened since then, and I have been struck again and again by how much of it has been positive, how continuously inspiring she is, and how much I have learned from her as she has fought through it. When someone says "cancer" a number of really dark associations immediately pop up, and for good reason, but I want to put it out there that strange goodness comes out of it as well (talk about grace).

I also want to put the disclaimer here that even though Aunt Ann is on my heart and in my prayers everyday, I am not in the first circle of support to her in Tennessee. I consider my role to be a support to my cousin and my mother who are really on the front lines and to be a fresh breathe of air when I can tell any of them need it. Part of this means that when those dark moments have come, I usually hear about the secondhand, especially through the emotion of my mother, and I show up later. Until they get a teleporter, I won't be able to be there as soon as I would like to be. I think being present for those moments would change what I am writing here, but maybe not as much as I would have expected in the beginning. I want to write about this because these things do run so deeply that you feel really exposed, vulnerable, and flippant trying to talk about it.But like so many things like that, hearing other people's experiences can be really encouraging.

So if you have someone you love going through it, feel free to add to my list of things learned/ worth feeling good about. God is strange and wonderful in his ways, and I will never ever be able to say I don't believe in miracles after seeing how much joy can thrive in our family in the face of something so ugly. So with no further ado-

10. Cancer is Just a Jerk- The disease is just the jerkiest disease ever, and Ovarian Cancer is particularly nasty because by the time they find it, it has made itself comfy all through you, like sand in your swimsuit on a beach day. Cancer is sneaky, twisty, and seems to know how to kick you when you are already down. Chemo, and this is perhaps said less often, is also a huge jerk. It gets talked about like a hero, but it's like sending a bully to fight another bully, but they both treat you really badly. You just have to maintain a positive attitude and hope they cancel each other out. Also, every experience with chemo is different, from person to person and chemo to chemo. Just because you have gone through it or seen someone you love go through it doesn't mean you are an expert, or that you can predict another person's experience at all.  Aunt Ann has gone through a number of different chemotherapies, and most of them have had really different effects on her. So if you are going through it, just know that one chemo won't behave like the next one.

9. Everybody has a role to play, and all the roles matter- I basically imagine Aunt Ann being at the center of a target with people occupying different supportive roles in each circle. She has Rob at the center, and Shelly and my Mom probably in that second rung. Some people are further from her, but their consistency of support has made a huge difference. We all have differing levels of closeness and differing relationships with her, but they are all important. It never stops being surprising to just see how far a card can go for lifting her spirit, and she has shed tears to me multiple times talking about mail and care packages she has received. That larger circle, where people really are further away, still makes a huge difference, so I really encourage you to send your loved one with cancer something little. It can be easy to forget, especially when they have been fighting for a long time, but that means they need more support, not less! I know I could always be doing better with this. All kinds of support really do make a difference, and those people right at the center of her support target need loved on too!

8. If you are living with cancer, you are still living, you are still you, and you still have a life- I think this is one I really didn't understand before.When you imagine a very serious cancer, you imagine someone frail in the hospital bed and life coming to a screeching halt. Those days have happened, to be sure, but it is also moving to see the many ways Aunt Ann's life keeps developping forward! It definitely doesn't look like it did before, and I know that is a struggle, but she still does things with her girlfriends. And she is a grandma (Gigi) now! And she still has a great laugh. And she still is just her so you don't even think to say "still." Cancer, I am pretty sure I mentioned this, is a big old jerk, but even if it has slowed her down, it is beautiful and encouraging to see all the ways that it hasn't kept her from living (also, thank goodness these things keep getting better, so she can just go home).

7. Just How Much Family and Love is an Action (And One you just have to Keep Doing)- My mother, in my opinion, is a badass, always late, crazy busy angel of a woman, and I think I have never felt more inspired by her efforts to be a devoted sister than in the last 2 years. She is so committed to her sister, even when she is not there, and Ann is the same to her. If I can't get a hold of Janet (not an uncommon occurrence), I know I can ask Aunt Ann, and she will know what is up. After 50 years of sisterhood, these two women still put the time and effort in to keep their relationship vibrant, changing, and alive. I love that, and I can see that they BOTH need it as my aunt keeps on this fight. My Mom (and her EPIC frequent flyer miles) show me that closeness is about priorities, that love is an action, and that commenting isn't caring (showing up is).

Last Thanksgiving, (nearly) our whole family came together to celebrate and it was an embarrassing gratitude weepfest for all involved. The Moffitt-Guth family is a big strange hybrid octopus of a thing, where we probably won't ALL be in the same room, where lots of people aren't related by blood, and where multiple health issues chip away at our collective mobility. But we are still growing and alive because people take care of the bonds they have and try to keep in touch. And people have stepped it up in some ways in the past few years, I think partially because Ann's illness served as a reminder that this time matters and those bonds matter. Some things cost money, but thoughtful emails and phone calls and skyping don't. Currently, nothing in the world drives me crazier than seeing other sides of my family crown themselves as finished, on to a new phase, mourning the good old days, etc, when staying together is still so damn easy, because everyone is healthy, mobile, and not all that spread out. Everyone has their priorities, and that is fine, but don't think you are kidding anyone by covering up with excuses. If Ann can still be a great sister, daughter, aunt, and mother, then I think we can all step up our game. Family is a thing you just have to keep working at, and the strength, love, and mutual support of my mom and aunt's relationship continually inspires me to keep putting that work in.

6. The Power of Prayer- I believed in prayer before, but now I can really see the awesome power of directed and intentional prayer. I see how the prayer really lifted her spirits and how her name spread around spiritual communities to give her support. I feel that people can really feel when they are being prayed for, and I believe that God has answered a lot of prayers in this situation (not always in the ways we expect, but that seems to be His MO). I feel like this is one of those statements that can be sticky, because so many cancer patients see less positive outcomes (as they have before in our family), but I believe God has provided a lot of healing, hope, and positivity for Ann, and I am super grateful for that.

5. An individual can do really hard things when the situation calls for it- This may seem like a no-brainer, but think about it. How does someone get through waking up from surgery to find out they have cancer? Or how do they bounce back from surgery when they have even more chemo to look forward to? How does someone keep showing up for chemo after 2 years of that miserable junk? She just does it. And this is the sweetest woman with the softest heart, but she finds that strength time after time. She gets less credit than she deserves, because it takes so much courage and power to face what she faces. Total badass. It has taught me that even when things look impossible or insurmountable, if it's what you have to do, you do it.

4. B Level Blessings really Teach Gratitude- This is my theory: we all have tons of blessings we don't notice (and in fact often pick at) like our jobs, our close relationships, and most of all our healthy bodies. Then, when you take one of these things, especially a healthy body, completely away, you suddenly become WAY more appreciative of the smaller blessings that make up for it. For example, I don't know how many times I have cheered on the phone because my Aunt's weight went up over 100 pounds. Or been totally elated that she has better CA-125 numbers, not even good ones, just that number going down. That momentum toward getting something that the rest of us take for granted creates ridiculous gratitude and excitement. Now why don't the rest of us feel elated that we have the privilege of wanting to lose weight or that we don't have to worry about our health in a way that dominates our life and time? Those B Level blessings, when what we take for granted is taken away, are so incredibly precious and valuable, and that gratitude can change everyone's life.

3. Today is a miracle, so there is no reason to think tomorrow won't be a miracle too-I say this one to my Mom every time she is having a down or scared moment, but I really believe it. When you first hear this diagnosis, or people start talking Ovarian cancer, you will hear statistics and stories. They are likely to not be encouraging. Not encouraging AT ALL. People around you (and around the closest family members) will say really dumb, unhelpful, and discouraging things even if their heart is in the right place. When that A Level blessing (which is an illusion anyway) of unlimited time gets taken away, you realize just how precious each day is. You can see where she is defeating odds and taking names. And you know she didn't do it by herself, but with God's help. I believe in remission for my Aunt, because time and time again, things have turned around, they have gotten better, and those odds have not applied. We can't expect God to give us infinite time here on Earth, that's not the deal, but we can appreciate that every day, despite being pretty vulnerable little things, we keep going and have the chance to do better. Aunt Ann is living proof of God's miracles every day, good or bad, and I think it's good to remember that is actually true of all of us.

2. About the True Nature of Sickness (It's a Marathon, not a Sprint)- I read somewhere early on that we think of Cancer as a shock to the system, but it actually is like constant waves against a shore. It keeps moving and changing over time, and its effects are cumulative. My aunt has been so wise to fight for time to emotionally and physically heal throughout her treatment, but this would be my advice to anyone who has a loved one going through it- this isn't going to take a few weeks, or even a few months, it might be years before you get that good news, so take care of yourself too. Succumbing to panic or feeling frustration that things aren't happening fast enough will only work against you, so take breaks when you need them but be sure to keep coming back. That person who is fighting is on a long road, so if you can help carry them or lift their spirits even for a while, you will make a world of difference.

1.The Insane, Miraculous, Amazing Power of Simply Staying Positive (and Having Faith)-  Aunt Ann is ridiculously good to sticking to her priorities, taking it a day at a time, and at being positive. Does she have her days? Hell yes, wouldn't you? But overall, she seems cheerful, grateful, and prayerful. She is also often making plans for the future, which I think is awesome. She has missed a couple of things because of being sick, but I always think about her plans for the future or for other cool things we have to look forward to (Thanksgiving and first birthdays next year in Tennessee? Group trip to Hawaii someday? etc). There have been times where she has made my mother crazy because Janet would be so much more aggressive or fiesty about things, but Ann's calm and positive attitude has served her so well through this whole thing.

You don't have to lie when things suck, but wallowing never helped anyone either, and she is a master at the mental game that comes with this disease. Be positive and focus on the things you love. That is what Aunt Ann has taught me through this, and I have so much love and admiration for her.

So that is what I have noticed, good and bad, about taking on cancer from watching her experiences- who out there has also supported a loved one through cancer? What did you learn? Or if you have cancer, how can people better back you up through it?

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