On Valentine’s Day 2004, Nicki Jackson’s husband, Glen, of Simi Valley gave her an odd gift.
“He came in with a card, looking very pleased with himself,” said Jackson. Inside was a check made out to the Nancy Reagan Breast Center for a mammogram. “I looked at him and said, ‘What is this?’ In my mind, I thought he wanted to buy me clothes.”
Nicki hadn’t had a mammogram for a couple of years and so she made an appointment. The next month, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“That gift saved my life,” said Nicki.
Things moved very fast then, says Nicki. With her husband’s support, and that of a strong community of friends from the church she attended and of her co-workers, Nicki survived, though Glen passed away several years later. His book on the experience from a husband’s perspective, Do the Next Step, features an epilogue written by Nicki.
Nicki recognized that other survivors might not have had the same support system in place.
“I began to look around and see how other people were handling it,” said Nicki, talking about her experience at a support group. “Several women in one of the classes I was in said that their husbands didn’t even talk to them, that they just sort of seemed to shut down.”
Unfortunately, it seems all too common for those diagnosed with cancer, in particular breast cancer, and those who have survived it to have varying degrees of support, says Lyndsay Heitmann, licensed clinical social worker at the Community Memorial Hospital.
Heitmann says that sometimes problems develop with spouses as well as friends.
“One thing that we see is concern about intimacy and changing appearances, especially with women who have to have mastectomies,” said Heitmann. “I think there is a question about communication; people who have a loved one dying of cancer often don’t know what to say or how to help.”
A 60-year-old breast cancer survivor who wishes to remain anonymous says that she lives in fear of being pigeonholed, not only by her acquaintances but in the work place, too.
“We not only have to live with this sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, we get to worry about our employers or potential employers seeing us as a health liability,” she said.
Many friendships end after diagnosis, too, whether due to the inability to communicate or express feelings or by the patient’s desire to focus on important relationships. Heitmann says that she counsels patients to accept offered assistance.
“When people are first diagnosed, there’s usually a big outpouring of people wanting to help,” said Heitmann. “At first you may not really take advantage of it, but what I encourage is to let those people help and to be specific in what kind of help is needed.”
Heitmann says that in this way friends can better understand the situation and feel that they are being of use.
For Nicki, her husband’s book, as she describes in its epilogue, is certainly a story for those “struggling with the fear of cancer” but it has also “become a love story” for her. “Cancer is like a fingerprint,” said Nicki. “For each person it’s different.”
For more information, resources and support, visit www.cmhshealth.org/coastalcancer/crc.shtml.