How to cope with the unimaginable

Find strength within yourself to support those who need it most


Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Facebook Page

By Lauren Crociati, Assistant Arts Editor

I found out about my brother’s Hodgkin’s Lymphoma while sitting in the living room of my apartment attempting to transcribe an interview for a journalism class before deadline. As I heard the words, “Your brother has cancer,” leave my mother’s mouth through the phone, I remember not believing it. I thought that it was a mistake, that perhaps someone looking at his test results was getting too ahead of themselves. At 26 years old, my brother was supposed to be invincible.

From then on, when doctors and my parents assured me it was true, there were months of withholding my emotions only to cry in the shower or in the middle of a party when everyone else was having fun. I didn’t leave school to see my brother because I simply couldn’t face him. How was I expected to be a beneficial support system for my brother when I could not even fathom the situation myself? My attempts to avoid home and the situation proved unhealthy for my future of coping and supporting my brother.

It was not until the summer — June, to be exact — when doctors at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute showed an image of my brother’s chest that I felt any sort of ease. After three months of chemotherapy treatments, an infusion method of therapy to rid the body of cancer cells, my brother’s doctor showed us an image of my brother’s chest at his first diagnosis. At the time, this area of his body was covered in cancer tissue, which made the image glow like Christmas lights. However, just three months later, the cancer tissue in his chest was almost gone. I remember feeling my whole body shake and witnessing the most sincere moment of relief cover my brother’s face. After several mentally and physically exhausting chemotherapy treatments over the course of six months, my brother finished what doctors and my family hope to have been his final treatment in August.

When faced with a situation as intense as a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, acknowledge and come to terms with the steps of a coping process. In order to support the individual going through it, it is crucial to have passed through the initial moments of shock and disbelief. Understand that the situation is real and there is no other option but to come to grips with it, and confront it in however way it must be dealt with.

It’s okay to have stages of denial. It’s okay to be distraught. Let your emotions run their course.

Friends would sometimes ask me why I didn’t seem so upset or why I barely talked about what was going on at home. In my mind, I felt as though it was not my experience, and that it was almost selfish of me to be so upset when it was not my diagnosis. The people around me, who made their intentions to support me clear, stopped asking because I never really spoke about my brother. Saving my outbursts of crying for the shower, which is one of the only spaces to truly be alone in college, was unhealthy. Developing a false mindset that my friends had no interest in continuous “sad talk” led me to internalize my feelings. In order to cope, and to help your loved one do the same, talk about it. Accept that your circumstances are tough and even at times unbearable. Explain to those around you the severity of the situation and ask for support. In my experience, friends that I love and that care for me reached out less and less after noticing that I seemed fine.

To the friends of those enduring such a situation: try not to lose touch. Although it may not seem like much, what my family and I needed most during this time was a confidant, friends and family asking how my brother was or even just a neighbor delivering a casserole so we could focus on my brother’s pain level after therapy rather than cooking dinner. At my lowest points I often wondered if my friends had forgotten about my brother once they stopped asking. I realized they simply did not know how to approach the situation, and whether or not I had interest in talking about it at all.

Finally, and perhaps most vitally: talk with your loved one. Sit with them. Spend time with them. Ask them about how they feel, both mentally and physically, and what they need from you. Aside from what felt like the hundreds of watermelon popsicles that I delivered to my brother’s room during the excruciatingly hot summer months, or the musicians and television stars that reached out to him after my mother’s many attempts to make him feel any ounce of happiness, he simply wanted a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on and someone to talk to. Throughout the process, and looking back it today, I know the most important step is to confront your own feelings before supporting someone else’s.

Seek strength in yourself to provide the best care for those you love. In sudden and unanticipated moments like these, find a support system while being a support system. Coping does not have to feel so insufferable, and it definitely does not have to feel lonely.

Lauren Crociati can be reached at [email protected]