A woman holding different shaped boxes while a man is adding more to her shoulders. The boxes represent feeling like a burden.

Cancer and the "B" Word - "Burden"

Most time when we talk about cancer we talk about the “c” word, or the “big C,” or even the “C” that sucks and is bad and makes you tired.. and... err, whatever that one kinda got away from me, but you get the point.

It’s “c” this and “c” that, but today I want to talk about another word. A “b” word. This word also happens to make people feel bad, comes when you least expect it, and can totally change your life. The word I’m talking about, of course, is “burden.”

Being a burden

Next to cancer, becoming a burden is the thing that the majority of people who are diagnosed with the “big C” worry about most. No one wants to have to rely on another person or people to live. It’s not good for self-esteem and it certainly isn’t conducive to that all-important “positive attitude” that we’re always being told is imperative to making it through chemo.

Unfortunately, it can happen in the blink of an eye, and it may not even be of your own doing.

Suddenly, you have to rely on others

Like getting a puppy or finding bed bugs, becoming a burden can happen suddenly and upend your entire living situation. One day you’re going along, enjoying movies and shuffleboard and, umm, clam chowder? Whatever.

Then, suddenly, you’re feeling pain in your stomach and after one trip to the emergency room, bam! You have cancer, and abruptly everything is turned upside-down - literally in the span of a few hours. You have lymphoma, blood cancer, and life as you knew it is over.

Now you need a support network

As I like to say, cancer is a heavy lift. It requires a support network, especially once chemo starts.

That means being reliant on others. Whether it’s friends, family, or the medical staff and assistants available to you, most of us who get the diagnosis need to rely on someone else, at least a few times during the tenure of our illness and that means feeling like a burden.

It’s inevitable and whether you are fiercely independent or someone who was raised by a village, it just doesn’t feel good to have to take without giving much back. You simply aren’t in a position to offer much besides company – a warm (ish) body in the room. A puking, exhausted, cranky, achy, hangry, body in the room.

The shame of being unable to care for yourself

So now you’re in the thick of it, chemo in full effect and unable to do much. You’ve become a burden. I know, like reading 50 Shades of Grey in front of your parents, it feels uncomfortable even to see the words in print.

Shame, pity, hopelessness – these are all emotions that come along with not being able to take care of yourself, but that’s what cancer does. Even if you do most other things by yourself, on the day you get your chemo infusion you are going to need a ride to and from the hospital, at the very least. Most of us, though, need more.

Giving it all up

I had to give up the small amount of work I did when I cancer, I had to give up all of the social activities, and something else I lost… what was it… oh, yeah… my marriage.

Basically, I became a 12-year-old again – living in my parent’s house, relying on them for financial support, and being fed eggy sandwiches for dinner. Actually, the sandwiches weren’t so bad, but the rest took their toll mentally and every day I woke up with that feeling in the pit of my stomach. Some of it was nausea but most was shame. Shame for not being able to take care of myself. It’s the main side effect of becoming a burden.

Those of you who know me know that before cancer, I lived with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic illness, for years. Because of three decades of joint damage and morbidities (aka side effects), I was no stranger to having to rely on others.

Relying on my mother

My mom has spent so many late nights and early mornings at the ER that she has a go-bag ready to go at a moment's notice. For some reason, nothing serious ever happens at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. It’s 3 a.m. on a Sunday or it’s nothing – so, in other words, I’m no stranger to having to rely on others and it never felt great, especially as my mom started to get older, but being a burden because of cancer is orders of magnitude more emotionally draining than it is for my chronic illness.

It got so bad that I had to get a small prescription of Ativan to take when the anxiety got especially bad. I hated being a burden to my now-elderly mother and with no kids of my own or even a spouse any longer, it was all up to my family. I still feel like I owe them every single day.

How do you cope with this feeling of being a burden? Well, you just have to remind yourself that sometimes small gestures go a long way. Simply saying “thank you,” or leaving a little note can make people feel appreciated. Cooking a meal if you’re up for it or even just offering to do it can show those you rely on just how much you value them, and while it may not completely eradicate that feeling in the pit of your stomach, it helps. Talk soon.

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