Caregiver and “con-see-urge”: Finding humor during cancer treatment
I don’t remember a time when my mom didn’t have breast cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 3 years old, and several years after that learned that she had metastatic breast cancer.
Keeping life normal for my younger brother, my dad, and me was always a priority for her, even on the days when she felt the sickest. So when I was in my 30s and the disease progressed to the point where she needed full-time care, it made sense to me to keep life feeling normal for her the way she did for us. Her bones were brittle and her arm was permanently in a sling. She had neuropathy in her feet and fractures in her legs, and she had trouble getting around. She was getting chemotherapy infusions and whole brain radiation. She needed a lot of help.
Despite all that, can I tell you something? We had so much fun together.
Although the seriousness of the situation never left our thoughts, we found small ways to enjoy going about it with each other. We made friends with the parking lot attendants at the hospital, we sang little songs, and through much trial and error, we learned which sandwiches were the best in the cafeteria. The running joke that we shared a brain started ringing truer day by day. We had a routine, and for us it was more one of comedy than of functionality.
I’m not medically trained, but I figured out how to care for her physical needs. Some of them were not the most graceful jobs, but we got through those with laughter, too.
While never making light of our circumstances, we found a way to make really tough situations approachable by finding the humor in it all. “Oy gevalt” was one of our favorite sayings. Put simply, it means the willingness to find hope and humor in catastrophe. This became our credo through years of tests and treatments and poking and prodding. Not only did this mindset make everything bearable for both of us, but it also brought us even closer in the process.
We fell into a surprisingly easy routine: I knew what she needed, and she knew how I would respond. She called me her “con-see-urge” in a nod to Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Such a playful, funny nickname that carried more weight than the intended comedic inflection. You had to get through me to get to her, and the privilege of that responsibility was not lost on me. She trusted me with her wellbeing the same way I trusted her when I was little.
Caregiving looks like a lot of things. It can be nursing. It can be housekeeping and cooking. It can be emotional support. Whatever it looks like for you, a good way to make the hardest tasks more approachable and comfortable for everyone is by finding the ability to see something to laugh at within them. Humor helped my mom feel less like a patient, and it helped me overcome the shift in the child-parent dynamic we were both so used to.
Finding common ground through open and honest communication is also necessary. If I was an uncared-for caregiver, I wasn’t doing the best I could for my mom. I found that things that had previously been no sweat could throw me for a loop. Unannounced visitors are a good example. If my mom was having a bad day, it was stressful to explain why she couldn’t see anyone, even for an “I’ll just pop my head in the door.” The support was wonderful – don’t get me wrong – but turning friends away made me feel like the bad guy. I found it helpful to ask my mom to send a group text asking for people to schedule visits through me and to respect when I told them that it wasn’t a good time.
I can’t tell you how impactful this small request was for me.
As things progressed, I became less concerned with drawing lines in the sand to ensure that my mother’s health and happiness came before anything else. My need to make this OK for her allowed me to find my voice. My priorities were clear, and my sense of purpose was strong.
In figuring out how to make everything normal for my mom, I learned how to make this new normal work for me. When she died in 2017, not only did I feel our relationship had grown closer than I’d ever imagined it would, but the knowledge and perspective I’d gained in devoting myself to her care left me strangely certain I would eventually be OK, and keep laughing, without her.
Sara Strauss is Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s healthcare provider outreach coordinator. She was the full-time caregiver for her mother, Debra Silverman Strauss, for the last years of her life. Sara lives in West Philadelphia.