‘Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

Have you had one of these conversations?

A colleague and I were talking about our parents a couple of weeks ago, swapping stories about our fathers. Hers has been declining for years, but a fresh episode was troubling her. My father passed away last year. As we talked, the stories began to sound like—well, they began to sound like things we shouldn’t even say out loud. We were talking honestly. If you’re a veteran caregiver, you can fill in the rest of this story. You know right away the troubling kinds of issues we were discussing.

Roz Chast book cover Cant We Talk About Something More Pleasant

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

It was a good talk! We laughed. We felt better.

As we were getting ready to leave, I said, “These are the things that no one talks about, but really should.”

Fast forward a week or so and I found myself listening to an interview with Roz Chast on NPR. She became the sole caretaker of her two elderly parents and she shares both the pain of this process and the laughter (and, yes, there is laugher, too). I immediately related to her new book: Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir. That link takes you right to Amazon, but if you want to listen to Roz on NPR, you’ll find two different interviews: Here’s the All Things Considered interview; and here’s the Fresh Air interview.

I find myself thoroughly relating to much of Roz’s book. Told in a way that only a cartoonist can, I am getting great relief from enjoying another person’s tale of life in my shoes. In her memoir, Roz certainly dares to tell the often unspoken “rest of the story.”

So this week my recommendation is: Check it out and let us know what you think.

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Rodney Curtis: What I wish caregivers knew

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

All of us who know Rodney are thrilled that he has completed his trilogy of books, taking readers through his struggles with both unemployment—in Getting Laid (Off)—and cancer—in A “Cute” Leukemia. Millions face these dire challenges. Rodney shows us how to tackle it all with humor. Today, you can learn a lot more about Rodney’s life and work in an interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. You’ll find that Rodney isn’t just some goofy guy. He knows a whole lot about defeating cancer. So, today, I invited Rodney to write a guest column.

WHAT I WISH CAREGIVERS KNEW

By RODNEY CURTIS

Attitude.

That’s everything, really. The relationship between the person who needs the care and the person who is trying to give it: It all depends on attitude.

When I first learned that I had acute leukemia—and, then, all the way through my long stays in the hospital, losing my hair and eventually a bone-marrow transplant—I heard from people these words: “I can tell you’re going to make it through this. It’s in your attitude.”

And it was.

That's Rodney hugging a friend in the summer of 2010 in the midst of his leukemia.

That’s Rodney in the baseball cap hugging a friend in the summer of 2010 in the midst of his leukemia.

Remember, “attitude” works both ways. First, there is my attitude—my perception of what I was dealing with and how I would relate to the people around me.  I am a true believer that the way you approach this whole experience says a lot about the outcome you can expect on the other end. Heather Jose calls her memoir about becoming a “cancer thriver,” Every Day We Are Killing Cancer. When she was diagnosed, she wrote those words on a little sign and carried that sign with her as a kind of motto, wherever she went.

What we are saying is: You have to approach this with your own passion, your own interests, your own personality behind it. Like Heather carried her sign—I carried my humor. I used a lot of humor, but that’s me: I love humor.

Maybe your thing is music—so you carry your music with you, wherever you go. I met a guy who decided his weeks in the hospital were his job and his hospital room was his office. Every day, his work—his job—was to get better. He thought of the nurses coming in for various reasons as co-workers coming into his office to help him do his job.

Second, the attitude of your caregivers is just as important as your own attitude. Get them on board with you. Because I loved humor, my caregivers loved to play along. I remember one day, the phone in my hospital room rang and it was a nurse, who was somewhere else at that time, laughing and saying: “Rodney Curtis! Turn on channel 7—STAT!” There was something funny on the TV that she wanted me to see. Because they knew my attitude, caregivers could become a part of that, too.

You’ve got to be honest and open.

If you suddenly find yourself needing help—let’s say you’ve just heard the diagnosis: “Cancer.” Well, I can tell you: It’s a mistake to step back from your friends and all the people who love you, if you can possibly avoid that. The best attitude includes reaching out to all the people around you. Use your connections. Use your social media. I mean, just think of all the tools and software and devices we have today to keep in touch! It’s brilliant.

And, in the first experiences you have in the role as a caregiver, you should be reaching out, too. Don’t be shy. Don’t pussy-foot around. Ask questions.

Here’s what happens all too often when someone is diagnosed with cancer: People hold back and are afraid to ask questions. They’re thinking: Ohhhh, Rodney’s got cancer. I shouldn’t ask him about it! But I’ll tell you: I’m sure that people imagine far more horrible things, if they don’t ask and don’t talk honestly with you—than anything I could tell them.

Then, if you want to help—step up and suggest something. Get specific. I know that people have different responses to this issue. From my own experience, I think it’s best when people who want to be good caregivers come up with real things they can do—and then offer to do these things, specifically.

Here’s an example: You can go up to a friend who needs help and you can say: “Hey, if there’s anything you need, just let me know.” And, yeah, that’s an OK expression of concern.

But I think it’s far better to say: “Can I make you dinner tomorrow night?” And then, “Is it OK if I make this for dinner?” Or, you could say: “Can I mow your lawn on Saturday?” Or, “Could my buddy and I come over and rake your leaves today?”

By offering specific suggestions, you’re telling the person what level of help you’re offering. You might hear back: “No, I really don’t need that.” Still, it gives that person who needs the help a good chance to say, “I don’t need that—but, I really could use this! How about doing this, instead?”

The real question is: Will we close ourselves off and back away from life and from other people? Will we become the patient in the bed? Will we give up our personalities? Or will we try, as best we can, to remain ourselves—and to help each other get through this.

To me, that’s attitude.

TAKE THAT NEXT STEP

VISIT RODNEY CURTIS’S AUTHOR PAGE IN OUR BOOKSTORE: Learn more about Rodney; read sample chapters—and use the easy links in our bookstore to buy copies of his book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other retailers. (Yes, you can buy print or e-editions.)

ENJOY RODNEY CURTIS’S LATEST COLUMNS: His department within ReadTheSpirit has been a favorite destination for our readers over many years.

CHECK OUT RODNEY CURTIS’S INTERVIEW: Our ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Rodney about how he learned to laugh in the face of fear.

SHARE RODNEY WITH OTHERS: In addition to buying his books—which we recommend, of course—please share this column with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the small envelope-shaped email icons.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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In his newest book, ‘The Art of Healing,’ Dr. Bernie Siegel says: ‘Laugh out loud! It’s healthy!’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

WELCOME Dr. Bernie Siegel!

He’s the best-selling author, teacher and retired pediatric surgeon who has been helping us all rethink—and expand—the healing process for three decades. I’m especially thankful to Dr. Siegel for encouraging readers to get my memoir, Every Day We Are Killing Cancer. One of his major themes is the importance of doing everything we can to raise our spirits—and keep ourselves focused on happiness. That’s very much my message, too, in my writing and in my own workshops, Go Beyond Treatment. I know you’re going to enjoy this brief excerpt from Bernie’s new chapter called simply: Laugh Out Loud

LAUGH OUT LOUD

By DR. BERNIE SIEGEL

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

(From his new book, The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing)

LAUGHTER may be one of the purest of the healing arts. What I am telling you is that laughter is one of the best therapeutic activities Mother Nature provides us with, and it doesn’t cost a cent. True laughter is an outburst of expression of breath that involves the vocal cords and comes from deep in the belly. It’s caused by an irresistible urge to express surprise, mirth, joy and delight. Laughter stimulates the release of endorphins. These chemicals flood the body with a feel-good sensation that reaches every cell, delivering a message that says: Life is worth living, so do everything you can to survive.

Unlike the days when I was training as a physician, today we have studies documenting that cancer patients who laughed or practiced induced laughter several times a day lived longer than a control group who did not. Even so, in medical school doctors still aren’t taught the value of laughter as therapy. I certainly wasn’t in medical school; my patients were my teachers. They, the natives, taught me, the tourist.

I recall one day walking into the room of a patient, a lovely woman who I cared about, and she was dealing with a serious illness and several associated complications. I approached her room thinking about how I was going to help her and worrying about her treatment. When I entered her room she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Why are you asking me that?” I responded.

“Your face and forehead are all wrinkled.”

“I am thinking about how to help you.”

“Think in the hallway, then,” she said. “I need you to smile when  you come in here.” She was right. I needed an attitude adjustment to be a better physician for her, and it was an adjustment I happily made. The best doctors learn from the critiques and coaching supplied by their patients, nurses and families.  I learned from all of these people that when I lightened up, encouraged laughter in others, and practiced it myself, everybody benefited.

Scientists have studied the effects of laughter on the body and identified a number of psychological benefits. Laughter increases activity in the immune system, giving “good” killer cells a boost, especially in their ability to target viruses, some tumors, and cancer cells. Measurements of immune system components show a lingering beneficial effect from laughter that lasts into the next day. Laughter appears to fight infection and abrasion or chemical insults to the upper tract of the respiratory system. Laughter is a natural muscle-relaxant; at the same time, it provides a good cardiac and diaphragm workout, improving the body’s capacity to use oxygen. This makes it an ideal activity for those whose ability to exercise is limited. Laughter also improves mood and decreases patients’ perception or awareness of pain. As in the case of appropriate exercise, there are no negative side effects to laughter.

So I recommend that you practice the expression of giggles and guffaws; become an artist, and fill your palette with laughter. Remember it’s not healthy to be serious and normal. Trying to be normal is only for those who feel inadequate. So be an infectious carrier. Spread joy and healing, and keep the artist within you alive.

CARE TO READ MORE?

OUR IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH DR. BERNIE SIEGEL: Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm talks at length with medical pioneer Dr. Bernie Siegel about his life’s work, his new book—and the importance of encouraging good humor.

OUR RESIDENT EXPERT IS RABBI BOB ALPER: Bob is the only active rabbi in the U.S. who also is a full-time standup comic. Millions enjoy his routines on satellite radio as well. His new book is Thanks. I Needed That. (Perfect for holiday gift giving in November and December!)

CAREGIVING EXPERT & AUTHOR BENJAMIN PRATT: Ben writes an entire chapter on the importance of laughter in his book A Guide for Caregivers. More recently, Benjamin wrote a column on Interactive Laughter.

COMEDIAN & INSPIRATIONAL AUTHOR SUSAN SPARKS: ReadTheSpirit interviewed Susan on her amazing career in ministry and humor, especially her book Laughing Your Way to Grace.

 

CATHOLIC WRITER JAMES MARTIN SJ: ReadTheSpirit’s David Crumm also interviewed the famous Catholic journalist Father James Martin about his book on “holy humor,” Between Heaven and Mirth.

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You know you’re recovering when—you’ve a taste for black humor

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Hard-Earned Lessons of a Cancer Thriver
A Note from Heather Jose:
As your host at We Are Caregivers, I’m pleased to welcome back guest columnist Kathy Macdonald. She’s also my aunt and a helper in my own journey through cancer, the story I share in Every Day We are Killing Cancer. Now, Kathy and I share even more: She has joined me in the ranks of cancer thrivers. She is sharing her inspiring story as a cancer thriver in four parts. Click on the headlines in the index box, at right, to enjoy each part.

A Taste for Black Humor

By Kathy Macdonald

Coca Cola in a tall glass

DARK HUMOR? Is this a glass of Coca-Cola or the start of a medical procedure!?! Kidding aside—Coca-Cola has been medically tested to open clogged feeding tubes in a number of scientific trials. Its acidity (just above pH 2.5) is somewhere between lemon and orange juice.

For a month after radiation and chemo, I continued to fail.

Apparently this is pretty normal for throat cancer patients like myself. You continue to “cook” for several weeks hitting your lowest point long after you thought it would be all be behind you. You reach a point when you are desperate for some sign of improvement … and then you begin to slowly improve.

This point coincided with the advent of spring. It was painstakingly slow, but glorious. As part of this process, cancer patients are often given CT or PET scans to confirm the healing process and to confirm that the treatment was successful. Each of these scans if usually followed by a series of visits to your radiologist, oncologists and/or your surgeon. These appointments are anticipated with both hope and dread. You desperately want reassurance that all is well.

In one recent post-scan visit, I was ushered into an exam room by a perky medical technician. She took my vitals and in the process shared how much it meant to her to see post-treatment patients. Her father had also had throat cancer. I asked how long ago this was and she said 3 years, 9 months and 2 days. I commented on her ability to keep such great track of time and she responded that it was easy since that’s how long he lived post-treatment. His cancer had spread to his lungs and then his brain. I was not sure this was what I needed to hear. With growing enthusiasm, she then showed me the necklace she had with his fingerprint and the pink bead on her bracelet that contained his ashes. Needless to say, she had no idea that part of my visit was to discuss a mysterious new spot on my lung.

In the moments alone after her departure and the arrival of the doctor, I decided to relish the humor in the situation. She had no idea of my situation or that I intended to live a whole lot longer than 3 more years. With even more joy, I realized that recognizing the humor was a sign of recovery … and something I could not have done even a month earlier.

Healthcare workers and many caregivers will tell you that it is the black humor that often saves them from the desperate situations they face each day. Without it, the burden would be too great.

Perhaps this is true also of those going through recovery. You know you are getting better when you can recognize the humor of your own situation: losing your hair, using Coke to open a clogged feeding tube, an ER nurse asking you how to access your chest port for an IV, or discovering a waiting groom gracefully decked out with—dead flowers.

I can find humor in all of these and it is wonderful. My body and my spirit are both in recovery. Thanks be to God.

Share this story with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this interview. Or email this interview to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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