When Your Support is Annoying

There’s a delicate balance between supporting someone and being annoying.

As a specieMjAxMy00NWI3OTA2MzIzMDhjZjhis we humans often want to ask dumb questions when we’re trying to find ways to support people.  I realize it’s a social norm, but it’s time that changed.  We need to think much more carefully about how we respond when people experience trauma, difficulty or loss.  It’s time to flip the script so we’re habitually more caring and supportive and a whole lot less annoying.

A friend’s 18 year old nephew was recently killed in a car accident, and she was telling me how everyone kept asking her sister (who had just lost her son), “How are you doing?”  What kind of an answer do we really expect to get from that question?  When you think about it, it is a stupid question.  The answer is obviously, “I’m terrible.  I just lost my son. I’m walking through loss and grief and sorrow and helplessness that you, who are not, cannot fully understand.  I want to cry all the time.  When I’m not crying I’m wondering how I’ll ever feel normal again.”  

What we really mean when we ask, “How are you doing?” to someone who experienced loss, is struggling with medical diagnosis, or is being forced to deal with some other traumatic life event is some subset or combination of, “I care about you. My heart goes out to you.  I can’t fully comprehend what you are going through, but I imagine it is extremely difficult.  I empathize with what you’re going through.  I want to support you however I can.  Perhaps you’re not sure in this moment how I can support you, but please know that whenever something comes to mind I want you to call or text me and let me know what it is.  I want to be here for you.”

So the next time you find yourself about to ask someone who is clearly suffering, “How are you doing?”, think again.  Find another way to show them you support them.

If you’ve been asked a stupid question that really means, “I want to support you”, I’d love to hear your suggestions for what people might say in such situations to actually show their support.

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Support Through a Diagnosis (Part II)

Continued from Support Through a Diagnosis

DSCN3600My family (who are in New Zealand) were also incredibly supportive.  They checked in with me often, talked through my options and decisions with me, and made sure I had the support I needed.  

My sister was upset and struggling with the idea that I would have surgery to remove an essential part of my body.  She is very informed about the power of clean, healthy eating and living, and will always gravitate towards more natural solutions.  I was thankful for her input and for her encouragement to consider alternative treatments without being pushy or overbearing.

She sent me a lot of books (including The Eden Prescription), many of which I only glanced through or read a few chapters, but it was her way of doing something useful to support me.  It was nice to have the books not only as a source of information but also a reminder of my sister’s love and support.  If I was having a particularly rough day I would catch sight of a book she’d sent and it would give me a sense of comfort and the knowledge that I was supported.

My Mum had already planned a trip out to visit me, so it was comforting to know she would be there in person.  She was concerned and willing to help in any way she could.  She would have jumped on a plane and been by my side if I’d told her I needed her at that moment.  She made sure she was here for my surgery and the weeks following.

My Dad called a lot, listened, made me laugh, and let me know he would be there for me in any way I needed him.  Although he was on the other side of the world, he made it abundantly clear that he would be a source of strength and support.  And let me tell you, it’s one thing when your Mum cries (probably because most of us are used to that at some point in our lives), but it’s a whole other thing when your Dad cries.  We cried together.  It was gut-wrenching, yet at the same time it emphasized how much he loved me and was walking this journey with me.

My brothers called, texted, checked in, and kept up with what was going on.  They talked to my parents or my sister so everyone had the latest updates.  They gave me websites or articles to check out, talked about my medical choices and threw in a good dose of humor to make me laugh when I needed it.  They showed me how much they cared just by keeping in touch and in the loop.

I learned to identify, accept, and appreciate my family’s support in whatever form it came.  I recognized that they were each in their own way reminding me that they loved me and they were rooting for me to triumph over my cancer.  I believe it was a major component of me keeping my sanity throughout the process!

Have you ever been supported by a family member?  I’d love to hear your story.  Please leave a comment.

Support Through a Diagnosis

Support ImageVocabulary.com says,”Good bras and good friends are supportive. Whether it’s an object or a person, anything or anyone supportive helps things hold up.”  Throughout my thyroid cancer journey I surrounded myself with people who held me up.

My boyfriend (he’s now my fiancé), my family, and my best friend were all a great source of support as I navigated the maze of doctors, tests, decisions, judgments and choices.

My boyfriend was very supportive.  I talked about cancer when I wanted to talk about it, but he didn’t pepper me with questions, tell me about all the research he’d been doing and compare notes, force me to talk about it, or let it dominate our existence.  He quietly sat beside me, held me when I cried, held my hand when he could sense I was worried, talked through the medical decisions and possibilities, came to every appointment, and gently encouraged me to share my feelings about what I was going through.

However, he made it very clear he wasn’t too hot on the idea of alternative therapies when a full thyroidectomy could take care of the matter swiftly and most likely completely.  He wasn’t interested in a long, drawn out treatment plan.  A full removal had big advantages with comparatively small risks.  I appreciated his honesty and his input.  I also appreciated the fact that he would respect whatever decision I made and support me no matter what treatment I chose.  I was also put on notice that it would be much harder for him to support me through a non-surgical treatment.  Fair enough.

If you’ve been supported through a medical diagnosis or helped someone else through theirs, I’d love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment.

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The Space to Make Decisions

decision_making_processThyroid cancer is typically treated by removing the entire thyroid gland, but as with any medical condition there are alternative methods of treatment.  The alternatives in this case were very non-traditional and scary to many who are only familiar with Western medicine.  They involve nutrition, acupuncture, prayer, emotional healing, and using the power of your mind and body to heal themselves.  I know it sounds “out there” to many, but I did consider these methods as viable alternatives.  I wanted to make sure I thoroughly analyzed my options.

I had two Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists eager to surgically remove my thyroid the minute I gave them the go-ahead (see my previous blog posts from March 3, 2016 and March 31, 2016).  With the arrival of my “suspicious for papillary thyroid cancer” test results I had a 70% chance my thyroid was cancerous.  Surgery to eliminate the 70% risk was obviously an option.  But that was too much uncertainty for me – I didn’t like the idea that there was a 30% chance I would have my thyroid removed unnecessarily.  I carefully considered all my treatment options in preparation for the day when I knew with greater certainty whether or not my thyroid was cancerous.

I was seeing a wonderful acupuncturist, and I told her about my results.  She was very compassionate and also very cognizant of the importance of me making up my own mind about treatment.  During several of my acupuncture sessions she encouraged me to use the time to relax, be open, and not to force any decision but to see what thoughts and feelings came.  It was very useful to use these treatment sessions as a time to allow myself to unwind, slow down, and feel the gravity of my situation. My acupuncturist offered to guide me through the process of natural healing without surgery if I chose that route, but she knew I needed to be 100% committed to that path by making my own decision.

Eden Prescriptionjourney-bookMy sister is very well-versed in natural healing therapies, and encouraged me to conduct extensive research into this area.  She sent me a lot of books to read, including The Eden Prescription by Ethan Evers.  It was interesting, engaging, and introduced new concepts to me that forced me to think about my possible disease in a different way.  My acupuncturist recommended The Journey by Brandon Bays, which was also enlightening and interesting.  It was well outside my usual realm of comfort, but I was open to embrace new ideas and try new avenues.

I very much appreciated the input of people with different treatment options and beliefs, and that those same people gave me the space to make my own decision.  Considering all my options, accepting information and input from a variety of sources, and being open to all alternatives ultimately led to me making an informed decision that was exactly the right decision for me.

Are you wrestling with a tough decision?  I’d love to hear from you – please leave a comment.

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Choose To Be Supported

When my thyroid test results were “undetermined” for cancer I began processing the possibility that I had cancer, but I never crossed the line into believing it was a reality.  All of that changed when I had my second Fine Needle Aspiration biopsy in April 2014 and the results came back “suspicious for papillary thyroid cancer”.

I remember reading the results in my car at work (by then I had learned to get my test results ahead of time) and sitting motionless for a few minutes as the news sank in.  Then I cried for a few more minutes.  Then I called my boyfriend (we work for the same organization, but not together) and he joined me in the car.  I was crying, he was hugging me, and I told him about the results.  We went through a few details and re-read the test.  Then he said, “Well, at least it’s not cancer. Oh, wait…”  We both giggled.  It broke up the seriousness of the moment, and was exactly what I needed.

SupportI didn’t realize it at the time, but from that moment forward I became more and more in touch with the people in my life who could provide me with exactly what I needed.  The choices I made were about weeding out the trivial or nonsensical things I dealt with or spent my time on.  I invested in myself.  I chose to allow people to help and support me.  Until my diagnosis, accepting help was a foreign concept to me.  Little by little I exercised my power of choice to accept help, allow others to support me, and direct my energy and attention towards things that had a positive return.

I’ve learned that exercising this power of choice is a healthy improvement for anyone to make, not just those dealing with life-altering experiences.  Think about the people in your life, the relationships you have, your job, your friends, and what you spend your time and attention on.  Are they supporting you or providing positive returns?  If they’re not, consider exercising your power of choice to change that.  It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen one small decision at a time.  Start the process by choosing one small element that is unsupportive or tearing you down and make a decision to change it.

You can read more about the process of positive change in this blog post.

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What Do You Say When Someone Tells You They Have Cancer?

CaptureThere’s no manual or guidebook to follow when your doctor tells you, “You have cancer”.  Everyone’s response is different.  I’d had a 5 month warning that I might have cancer, which gave me some time to process the information before “the big reveal”.  I’d started out simply toying with the possibilities, playing “What if…?”  I think it was easier to digest the possibilities one small piece at a time, so it wasn’t such a shock when the moment of truth finally came.

When I received my first fine needle aspiration (FNA) test results of “undetermined”, I was a little concerned, but at that time there was only a 5% chance I had cancer.  I told my boyfriend (he’s now my fiance) about it, and we both knew the potential final outcome was one that included cancer. But at that time the possibility was remote.  We didn’t panic or go to extremes.  We did agreed to take things one step at a time.

There were 3 months between my first and second FNA test.  It was a couple of months in before I told my family in New Zealand about the possibility I might have cancer.  I didn’t want to alarm them, but as it got closer to my second test I realized I needed their support, and it was important to me that they know what I was going through.  My family was very supportive.  I’m sure it was frustrating for them being 7,000 miles away and not being able to hug me or be with me, but they were great.  They made a point to check in a little more often, and always told me they were thinking of me and praying for me.

I told my best friend.  We’re women, so of course we talked at length about what the possibilities were, what my research (thanks to Google) had shown, when my next test was, how supportive my boyfriend was, how concerned my family was, etc. etc.  We talked more frequently during those 3 months, and she told me often how she was praying for me and offered for me to call her any time.

If someone you know tells you they have cancer, there’s no guidebook for you on what to say either.  I think sometimes people feel awkward and don’t really know what to say, and they don’t know what to do for the person either.  Well I’m here to tell you that in my experience a heartfelt, “I’m so sorry to hear that” followed by an offer or gesture of support was the single most supportive and helpful thing anyone could do.  For me one of the the least helpful things was to hear how so-and-so friend, relative, or long-lost cousin had thyroid or some other kind of cancer and now they were fine.  I know people think this is comforting, but for me it seemed to diminish the seriousness of what I was facing – a sort of dismission of concern that said “Oh, you’re going to be fine, don’t worry about it.”  I know that’s not what people mean, but that’s the way it came across to me.

Hearing a kind word of sympathy or compassion, hearing that friends are available to help in any way they can, receiving offers to talk or get a coffee together, or having a noticeable increase in the frequency of contact with friends and family was extremely helpful for me when I was dealing with my cancer diagnosis.  For more suggestions about what you might say or do, check out this article from cancer.org.  If you’re looking for ways to connect when you’re separated by miles, here’s some additional suggestions.  At the core, the human existence is about connection.  If someone shares with you that they are journeying through cancer, reach out and connect with them.  It is powerful and significant.

In fact, you shouldn’t wait for a life-altering event.  We can all use a little more human connection.  So reach out and connect with the important people in your life today.

How I Discovered My Thyroid Cancer

one-ten-millionth-chance-of-finding-cancer-cellOne common question people ask me is how I discovered my thyroid cancer.  Cancer makes people (understandably) nervous, so it’s natural to want to know how to at best avoid cancer, or at worst detect it early.  Well, Dr. Elliott helped me discover the cancer in 2014 (read more here), but my first clue was the goiter.  I originally discovered the goiter back in 2006 – I felt a lump in my neck.  I could feel it when I swallowed and it moved up and down.  It felt like I was having an allergic reaction and my throat was swelling – not to the degree that it interfered with breathing or swallowing, but I was definitely aware of it.  My son was only 6 months old at the time, and I later discovered many women experience thyroid issues during or shortly following pregnancy.

I checked in with my physician who ordered an ultrasound and blood test.  I had the goiter measured by ultrasound, and at that time it was only about ½ a centimeter.  The standard guidelines say you should generally be concerned when goiters are over 1 centimeter.  I was told no further action was necessary, but it was something I might want to “keep an eye on over the years”.  The instructions were vague – my doctor never said I should check it again in “x” number of months.

ThyroidSys1My blood test showed that my Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) was off the scale at greater than 100 (normal range is 0.4 to 4).  You know how you get lab tests and there’s a range of normal and you sometimes get a “High” or “Low”?  My TSH was so high it was off-the-chart unmeasurable – they couldn’t assign a number to it.  My doctor almost fell off his chair when he read the results (I know now that an engaged doctor would have known the results in advance of my appointment instead of reading them for the first time in front of me, unable to disguise his surprise).  He said I should weigh 300+ pounds and move like a sloth with a TSH like that.

I was given thyroid medication and told I would have to take it for the rest of my life – since my body wasn’t properly producing thyroid hormones I would have to get them from a medicinal source.

Basically my pituitary gland was pumping out copious amounts of TSH as an instruction to my thyroid to produce thyroid hormones, but because my thyroid wasn’t functioning correctly there wasn’t enough thyroid hormones in my bloodstream to tell the pituitary gland to quit with the TSH, so it just kept pumping it out.  For more information about thyroid function here’s a great article on the topic.

I was tired, but I had a new baby and a good night’s sleep was a distant memory.  I had dry skin and brittle nails, but I was washing my hands constantly after changing diapers, feeding, etc. etc.  Other than the lump I really didn’t have symptoms strong enough to indicate something was wrong.  This was true from my initial high TSH test through the next 8 years to my cancer diagnosis.  Thyroid disease and thyroid cancer can be subtle, which is why it is wise to get a neck check and an annual thyroid blood test.  For more information about thyroid screening guidelines, check out these articles about blood tests  and checking your neck.

Do you or someone you know have experience with detecting thyroid cancer?  I’d love to hear from you – please leave a comment.

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