Though now cancer-free, Sam McKinnon, 32, still struggles with infections and other health-related issues. This is common among many cancer survivors, despite it often not being widely known among those who have not personally battled or known someone else who has battled cancer.
Earlier this spring, Sam spent about two months in the hospital. With that much time away from home, we talked about her four-year-old son, how this journey has impacted him, and how she explains her medical condition in ways he can understand.
“He’s been to doctor’s appointments with me because my husband’s working and I can’t ?nd someone else to watch him. So, he comes and watches his iPad. He’s very good. And he’s obviously seen me in the hospital. I would get day passes from the hospital sometimes. So, I’d be able to come home and be with him for the day, and even as much as put him to bed and be like, ‘Yeah, mommy has to go back to the hospital for the night.’ I think he’s dealt with it pretty well. We had some trouble this summer where he was acting out but also unusually needy towards me. So that’s where I feel like he was trying to process what had happened in the spring.”
Despite the seriousness of cancer, Sam and I were able to share a moment of humor. When her son asks questions, she answers, which is challenging yet strangely refreshing in that children acknowledge what adults often prefer to pretend away. When he asks about her nephrostomy tubes which connect to urine bags that she carries by her legs, she made it a point to explain it to him matter-of-factly, to which he replied with a simple, “Okay.” Yup – just like that.
Through my conversation with Sam, I’ve learned that often the most helpful action for cancer patients is not receiving rehearsed cookie-cutter positivity quotes that belong on Get Well cards from loved ones and strangers. They just need others to sit with them in their pain while acknowledging the reality of their circumstance. In many ways, it goes against our instinct because, as human beings and loved ones, in particular, we really would love nothing more than to solve their problem and take away the su?ering. Sitting with it, whether our own or another person’s, is di?cult and uncomfortable, but Sam said that it’s needed.
“I just feel like, when I’m telling someone about either my diagnosis or something traumatic in my last couple years that’s happened, either because they asked or, like, I’m just having a bad day of need to vent. Like, I’m not telling you, because I want you to ?x my problem, or make me feel better about it. I just need to say it out loud to get it out there. And I think that’s what people don’t realize. I think they take that on, and they feel like they need to give you advice or give you – you know – a silver lining or ?x your problem. But that’s not anyone’s intention unless you’re actually talking to a professional. But when it’s just like, you know, a friend or a stranger or acquaintance, you just want to be heard. And just acknowledge like, yeah, it sucks. You know, just the acknowledgment and validating that your situation is what is. It doesn’t need to be ?xed.”
I asked her if there’s anyone in her life who’s matched the kind of support that she described. Immediately, she mentioned her friend and co-worker Kim, followed by a wave of emotions that caused her to tear up for a moment. She recalled stories of true support – like the time when Kim went with her to a chemo session when Sam’s husband was unable to get o? work. Or when she drove round trip with Sam to a provincial conference two hours away so that she wouldn’t be alone with her thoughts. When Kim’s husband asked her why she did it, Kim responded, “Honestly, Sam is probably one of the only friends that would do it for me too.”
When Sam was initially diagnosed, she wondered if it was karma, but she now views her experience in a new light.
“After all the love and support that I got, I felt very much like maybe that’s what I needed. I needed a reminder of how well I’ve done in life and how loved I was by people. I just needed this reminder that I am doing something right in life. People care. They see me as a caring person. That was my positive spin on it.”