Your loved one is sick. What do you do?

by , on
2021-01-21

It’s been 13 years since I met Virginia and she convinced me to run 26.2 miles. As a cancer survivor and a few years ahead of me in life, she said if she could do it, then I could do it. I couldn’t argue with that. Now, I may have regretted listening to her a time or two during the following months of training. However, the fact that she was even there for that arm-twisting conversation was a medical miracle, and, at least in part, due to the love of her husband, Van.

When Virginia was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Van started researching. Sacrificing sleep to surf the 90’s internet, he was looking for something that might save her life. What a shot in the dark, right? Cancer is a big, scary monster that has bested experts for a long time. What difference would it make for this one man to educate himself on the world of cancer treatments?

The difference was that he found a clinical trial for an experimental drug. They were able to get Virginia into that trial. She became one of the first people to receive an effective dose and 21 years later she’s still alive.

For a couple years, I had the privilege of hearing Van and Virginia tell parts of their story to crowds of marathon runners. As I listened, I imagined Van accompanying Virginia to her medical appointments and sitting with her through treatments. All things that were probably difficult for him to do, yet powered by his love for her.

However, it was that additional effort of self-education and hunting down a miracle that always gave me pause. Even if the miracle drug hadn’t existed, love compelled him to do as much as he could and to refuse to accept things as they were. If you want to hear more about Van and Virginia’s amazing story, I recommend you purchase their book and read it.

Love is Costly

When someone we love gets sick, it might upend everything. Plans and dreams get put on hold or entirely replaced with a new normal; one that might involve becoming “an expert” in the disease or illness that is attacking your loved one.

That makes me think of Jone and Joshua. Jone is my cousin. Joshua is the partner of her son, Randy. Randy also had a terminal diagnosis a few years ago and was in and out of the hospital and, sometimes in and out of consciousness. Jone and Joshua had to advocate for him with surgeons, doctors and nurses for years. And by advocate, I mean stopping them when they were about to do something that would’ve made him worse or even killed him. Time and time again, it was their knowledge about his disease that helped him get through.

When someone we love has a chronic condition, we might have to change the entire family’s diet and/or schedule. I once met a family who got their kids out to ride bikes in the pre-sunrise light because one child, who could not be directly exposed to sunlight, loved to ride. I can’t imagine it was easy to adapt to waking up the entire family while it was still dark on a regular basis.

We might be tempted to say that none of these things are difficult to do when you love someone. We might not even want to talk about how tedious it is to research cancer treatments, or how stressful it is to challenge medical professionals, or how inconvenient it is to reorient our daily life in these situations. At least I tend to jump toward thinking…“well, it is nothing compared to the struggle of the one we love who is sick and in danger.”

There are personal costs we are willing to pay if it means saving the life of or alleviating the pain of someone we love.

What if the disease isn’t physical?

What if the disease attacking your loved one isn’t cancer? What if the source of their pain isn’t something wrong in their cells or even in their psyche? What if they are fighting to survive the societal cancers of racism and white supremacy?

Can you make this jump with me?

If you are not a person of color, but your loved one is, there’s a good chance you don’t automatically understand the disease that threatens them or the pain of the cumulative harm done by racism and white supremacy. There’s a good chance that the social “diet” and routines you’re accustomed to are toxic for your Black child or your brown spouse.

Like Van, does your love compel you to stay up through the night learning and researching, even if there is no miracle cure for racism?

Like Jone or Joshua, are you taking on the responsibility to know what you need to know to be ready to prevent further harm, even if it means challenging a doctor, a teacher, a pastor, a grandparent, a friend?

Are you willing to make changes to your life or get out of your comfort zone in order to create a healthy environment for them?

Even if you are a person of color, but your loved one is a different racial/ethnic minority, there’s a good chance you have some learning and changing to do as well because their distinct experiences of racism and racial trauma might be quite different from yours.

What is love, anyway?

I’ll admit I’m a bit confused these days when someone says they love me. In this past year, there have been plenty of “I love you”s from family, friends, and fellow Christians, who seem content with leaving me (and others) to battle the societal cancer that is racism alone.

“I love you” but I will still pedal anti-Chinese sentiment around this virus. That’s like saying “I love you but I will still smoke around you even though you have lung cancer.”

“I love you” but I don’t want to understand what you’re going through.

“I love you” but not enough learn how to care for or help you through this.

“I love you” but I won’t speak up to others who are harming you.

“I love you” but I won’t sacrifice my comfort to alleviate your pain.

Is that really love, then?

I have greatly appreciated the people who have listened to me or have read what I wrote. However, it seems like many white friends and family see it like a hobby of mine. Like I talk about racism and adoption trauma and how that impacts me because I enjoy it, but it’s totally optional. So they do not have to actually know anything about my little hobby in order to love me.

However, I see things like racism and adoption trauma like a disease I’m fighting, an affliction I struggle against. Somedays the pain is so bad I can’t get out of bed. Somedays I’m feeling really good. Either way, my overall health is greatly impacted by whether or not those closest to me are doing their own learning and willing to make changes.

Just like Van, by himself, did not save Virginia’s life, I don’t expect any one person to be everything I need. Virginia is still with us, not just because of love, but because of years worth of research by specialists and treatment by medical staff, as well as the support of their friends and family.

Still. The kind of love that refuses to accept things as they are and keeps trying, against all odds, can make a huge difference in the outcome. The kind of love that puts effort into understanding someone else’s struggle can learn how to help without furthering harm. That is the kind of love we need.