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February 10, 2006
Coping with Cancer: Some tips from Lance Armstrong
The topic of cancer has been on my mind a lot lately. A few weeks ago, my best friend from college was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her 16-month-old son is three weeks older than my son, Leo.
Another new-mom friend of mine here in New York is married to a man who has a rare form of lymphoma. This week he was getting a stem cell transplant. He is in isolation at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital for a month, which means he can’t see his germ-riddled 18-month-old daughter.
Cancer sucks. The treatment is bad enough, but for my friends who have such small children, the thought of explaining why mom has her head in the toilet or why daddy isn’t home for weeks at a time seems daunting. Incidentally, both of these moms are working parents.
With that in mind, I took the opportunity during a press conference yesterday to ask Lance Armstrong for words of advice and inspiration for my friends. (You can read all about Armstrong’s new partnership in a series of mutual funds here.)
The first line of defense is to surround yourself with people who are supportive. Hopefully, that includes your place of employment. “I know what it’s like to have a company standby you, and I know what it’s like to not have a company stand by you. It hurts when they don’t,” Armstrong says.
I also asked him what guidance he could offer the newly diagnosed, as well as family members and friends:
“Ask hard questions. Insist on second, third, and fourth opinions. Sometimes the tendency for people in most of their hometowns is to stay there—to go down the street to the corner oncology shop and be content with what they are going to be given. I was diagnosed in a smart city, a big city, a progressive city. But I ended up having to leave Austin and go to Indianapolis to get the right mix of treatment and care. Without that, my life would have been very different. I suspect I would have lived. But, without a change in treatment and a change in protocol, I wouldn’t have raced again…
“It’s tricky when you first walk into the doctor and you get that news. You look at the doctor as if he were almost a godlike figure, so it’s difficult sometimes to say: ‘You know, I respect you. I care about your opinion, but I’m going to go ask for a second opinion or a third opinion, or a fourth.’ Ultimately, you have to find the place where you are comfortable with the level of care and treatment that’s going to be given.
“Finally, I made my way to Indianapolis. I said to myself. ‘Look, obviously, I want to live, I think I have a good chance, but if I’m not going to live, I have to die knowing that I did everything I could do.’ I challenge people to ask that question--a lot of times that means flying somewhere, driving somewhere, or just leaving home. But it’s the most important decision they’ll ever make.”
That’s great advice. The other thing I think people who are dealing with illness (or any other life-altering event) need to do is to ask for help. But people have a hard time asking for help, which means that, as friends of the sick, we need to extend our services. That could be an offer to watch someone’s kids while they go to a doctor’s appointment, or even to bring over a meal. People eat when food is put in front of them. After a grueling day at the hospital or an exhausting night comforting a sick spouse, it’s so nice to know that you don’t have to worry about food.
In fact, the moms from Leo’s playgroup pooled together several hundred dollars to feed our friend whose husband is in isolation for a month. A week's worth of meals started coming to her house last Sunday.
A little pampering helps, too. We threw in a $150 gift certificate to a spa that’s conveniently located downstairs so she can get some much-needed R&R.
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