Whilst I am sure that openness is best, there are many, many people for whom this is difficult. Some people will not say the word ‘cancer’ and will use other phrases, such as ‘the big C’. This harks back to the days before today’s knowledge and treatments of the disease.
It may feel odd at first, but when you are talking with others tell them what the trouble is, and get used to saying the word ‘cancer’. Not only will it help to break down some of the superstition about the use of the word, but it shows them that you are being open about the problem, and stops them worrying that they are going to put their foot in it by saying the wrong thing. It gets easier for you as you get used to using the word.
It is difficult for others to support you both if they don’t actually know what the problem is, or if you pretend that things are better than they actually are. Sharing the situation with others is a help to you, although at the start you may have to pluck up a bit of courage to be open. Rather than trying to handle the situation yourselves, you want to build a team to work with you. That team should not just be medical people, but should include friends and family too. That will only work by communicating, so when people ask how your wife is, be frank and open. The more sensitive may also ask how you are doing!
I came across people who would ask me about Abigail, but would not ask her to her face. One older family member never asked her once in the 5 years of treatment how she was doing! We have to accept that some find it difficult to face the problem, and don’t know what to say. When this happens I believe it is important to tell your wife afterwards that they have been asking after her. They probably do actually care, and it is helpful for your wife to know that, even if they can’t say it to her directly. The bigger the circle of people who care the better, so let her know of everyone that is enquiring or sending good wishes.
One form of talking we found to be most helpful was talking to God, or prayer. Not only did we pray together, and individually, but also with friends, and many friends told us that they were praying too.
Some may wonder why one would want to communicate with a God who has sent this dreadful illness into our lives. We need to sort out in our minds where we think God is in this situation, before we can talk to him about it. The early pages of the Bible make it clear that the good world as God intended has been spoiled. Many bad things, including sickness and death, have been allowed into our world. This seems to be tied up with our freedom to make our own decisions (rather than just being puppets of a creator), and over the generations mankind has made many bad decisions. This is explained in picture language when we read about Adam and Eve in the early pages of the Bible. It may look a rather strange story, but we don’t know of any other way it could have been told, and at least it is in an intelligible form for people of differing knowledge over thousands of years.
Rather than thinking that God sent Abigail her cancer, we understand that it is one of the things he has allowed to happen, just as he has allowed various forms of illness and death to affect everyone at some time. We don’t think he gets any pleasure out of seeing people suffer, and we also don’t expect that he will continually intervene with everyone’s illness to prevent them from ever dying. That would not be the world we know.
One of our sons, Colin Cleaver, spoke about this at Abigail’s funeral. He lives and works in Siberia, so was not able to be present at the service here in the south of England. For this reason his thoughts were recorded on DVD - you can see what he had to say by clicking here. If you would prefer to read a text version please click here.
When one of the consultants was surprised at how well Abigail was doing during the treatment, we felt that prayer was a lot of the reason. He did not know that we had found it helpful to pray together just before setting off for a potentially difficult consultation. Our prayer before a consultation was not for a healing miracle, but that the communication would be good, that there would be no time pressure, and that we would clearly understand what was being said.
If you are not sure how to start praying, drop us an e-mail and we will reply with some helpful hints about getting started - you don’t have to be a clergyman or use special language to pray, and it is a pity if some people miss out on this resource.