Build A Little Nest:
Advice for New Cancer Patients
by Jessica Martin
In my mind’s eye, I remember the initial period following my Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis at age 38 as a pile of blurry (due to all the tears) snapshots and shaky little videos. Looking over at my friend Nolan who was with me as the doctor blurted out my news. Me, on the phone with my mom as my heart thumped loudly in my ears. Calling my best friend while still at the procedure center and hearing her husband immediately say, “Tell her we’ve got the kids.” Sweat. Nausea. Fear like I had never imagined. Silence and stillness as I stood on my front porch and discovered only 9% of people with my dx (diagnosis) lived five years or more. My oncologist bounding into the exam room with a smile when we met. Gripping my husband so, so tightly. The open, beautiful faces of my children. Physical pain – clean, sharp, and searing in the hours and days following my first surgery. A gift bag from our next door neighbor. Tears. So many tears.
But my medical files, social media accounts, and email folders offer a different narrative: one of high-stake decisions made quickly as my husband and I placed our normal lives on hold. We embarked on a whirlwind effort to find an oncologist while we struggled to understand my diagnosis; we worked to stay calm for the sake of our small children. Even as life was falling apart, my husband and I pretty well kept it together.
What we also were doing at the time, although I didn’t recognize it then, was building a nest. It wasn’t an actual, physical nest, of course. But we created a space where we – myself, my husband, our children – could find a little comfort, a little space to be together, away from the winds and hellish weather that the world was throwing our way. And we did it by tapping into the strength and support of the people who knew and loved us: our family, friends, colleagues, and mentors. Over time – four years and counting – this nest has remained. It’s been reinforced, patched up, feathered. It has become a beloved and much used space. It’s become my virtual home, and I wouldn’t be able to function without it.
When you’re suddenly plunged into the world of cancer – especially, I think, as a young(ish) adult who has been juggling parenthood, partnership, work deadlines, and a busy social life – it’s completely shocking. I literally woke up one morning a normal person in the middle of my life and went to bed that night a cancer patient. Although there was no shortage of medical experts around to navigate me through the surgeries, chemotherapy sessions, and so on that would come to dominate my everyday existence – there wasn’t really anyone to telling me how to keep the rest of my life manageable. Now, more than ever, we wanted and needed to provide routines and a whole lot of love for our children. But they also had to get to school with homework finished, lunches packed, in clean(ish) clothes. The dog needed feeding and exercise. Our families lived all over the country but wanted to know what was happening and many checked in more than once a day. Friends near and far called, dropped by, sent gifts, and asked after my health. We were so grateful for the outpouring of love, but we were overwhelmed, too. Our employers and colleagues were there for us completely – no small task when you consider that I had final exams to give and stacks of essays and papers to grade (it was only ten days before the end of the semester, and I was a full-time faculty member teaching three courses!) – and needed logistical information, at the very least, on a regular basis.Seemingly within days after diagnosis, paperwork of all kinds began piling up. Meanwhile, my brain wasn’t functioning all that well.
So I did what only weeks before would have been unthinkable for me, a stubborn and fiercely independent person: I began, reluctantly but importantly, to ask for help. I was and am extremely fortunate to have had so many people to call on then. I wanted help, but I wanted control over that help, too, and those who knew me best accepted that with the ultimate grace and aplomb. I appointed my best friend Kelsey the communications director and together we started a private Facebook page where either one of us could post updates, which helped cut down on the need to explain the newest developments over and over again via text or phone. As a matter of fact, I stopped accepting phone calls altogether. I couldn’t handle talking to people; the love and concern in their voices had me breaking into tears at a moment’s notice.
I took advantage, of course, of my parents first: while they were in town, I relied on them without reservation and, in return, they offered love, a clean kitchen, freshly laundered clothes, piles of new pajamas, books and electronics, food deliveries, strength, and reassurances galore. I texted my aunt, who had been a nurse for many years and had just lost her husband of nearly 50 years to cancer the month before, multiple times a day, looking for prayers and assistance. (She’s lit a candle at church for me every single day since my diagnosis!) I asked the principal and teachers at the kids’ school to send us daily updates and they responded with alacrity, going above and beyond for us. Slowly but surely, my nest took shape: built on a sturdy foundation of love and support from reliable loved ones, with some shiny bits for fun supplied by friends who refused to allow cancer to deep-six my sense of humor, and featuring some extra cozy and often unexpected creature comforts: a heatable wrap from a high school friend; a prayer blanket sent by my aunt; an overnight visit from the grade school bestie I hadn’t seen in 30 years. It was a perfect little nest, and like the best nests, it seemed to appear suddenly out of nowhere, brimming with potential, home to a somewhat frantic and often irritable birdie (that would be me), and desperately needed to protect myself and my family.
It all started with a deliberate decision to ask for what I needed, even though reaching out that way was so very difficult. It was an acknowledgment, after all, that I no longer was in complete control over my life. (Which, of course, none of us are! But most of us refuse to believe that, especially when we’re in the thick of living out the lives we imagined for ourselves.) I felt weak, asking for assistance. But what I thought of as weakness then has turned out to be one of the critical early moments in which I began to become strong. In which I began to take control of my diagnosis, with the help of the people who loved me. Four years later, I’m celebrating my survivorship – and as I continue treatment, I’m also celebrating the people who have been and continue to be my comfort and protection, who helped me create and continue to maintain my nest.
Jessica Martin, PhD, is married to her best friend, mom to two adorable children, and reluctantly responsible for a house full of pets. Formerly a faculty member at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she taught US history and international affairs, she’s now a full time cancer survivor and patient! Learn more about her cancer experiences here: http://drjlifethisway.blogspot.com/
You kick butt, Jessica! Thank you for sharing your beautiful words with us!