Joining hands and helping someone who has cancer

This post is a diversion from my normal post topics, but one that I felt led to write. It directly refers to helping someone who has cancer, but a lot of this would also apply to a person who has another illness that limits them in any way, or has recently had a baby or a surgery. Cancer was my journey, so I can speak about it from personal experience.

All of these ideas come from that journey, but also from talking to other patients who have dealt with some of the same things as they have gone through their treatments AND from people who know someone who has received a cancer diagnosis and are looking for the best way to help.

If I could only give you one piece of advice it would be this:

Simply ask the individual what they need, or how you can help them specifically. Everyone’s experience is different, and what each person wants and needs is different as well.

Beyond that, these are some of the things that I wish people would have done for me, people did do for me, or things that I’ve heard others say they wish people had done for them.

1) Don’t say “Let me know how you’re doing”. Instead, say “I’ll check on you”.

It may sound like the same thing, but saying “let me know” keeps the burden to remember on them in a time that they already have a lot on their mind. Not to mention the fact that the chemo takes a lot out of you and you can’t always remember what you’re supposed to do afterwards.

When you say, “I’ll check on you” you tell the other person two things – one, they are important enough for you to remember them later, AND two, you are taking the responsibility off of their shoulders to make contact. This means a great deal, especially when you first get your diagnosis and start treatments.

2) Let them know specific times that you’re available to help with things – and write it down or put it in an email to them.

Brain fog is real when it comes to having chemo treatments. And it can last for a long time after the treatments are over. Not to mention the overall stress of going through everything involved in having been diagnosed with cancer.

Writing down the times that you are more available to help out with things takes some of the load off of their brains. If you just tell them, they are likely to forget and potentially feel bad for doing so, so they won’t reach out at all. It also sets a boundary for you, so that you don’t feel like you have to be available 24/7.

3) In the same vein, let them know specific things that you can help with – things that you feel comfortable doing.

Not everyone feels comfortable accompanying someone to a chemo appointment, or may not have the time with work and their own stuff. But maybe you could help them clean their house every other week, or pick up groceries for them, have their car washed, walk their dog, or cook them a meal every so often. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something that you can and will do, and that you’re not over promising.

And again, don’t just say “let me know when you need help”.

4) The easiest way to do something for them, while still maintaining your own schedule, is to tack doing something for them onto what you’re already doing.

For instance, if you’re already going to the grocery store, call and ask if they need/want anything. If you’re going to be out running errands, ask them if they would like for you to pick up food and bring it by, or do anything else for them while you’re already out.

5) If you’re worried about calling to check on them, or stopping by to see them because you don’t want to bother them, or wake them up…

Ask them when you talk the next time if they turn their phone down when they rest. If they do, you don’t have to worry about waking them up or bothering them. Tell them you’ll check on them at a specific time, and if they are resting or don’t feel up to talking, they can get back with you.

I would turn my phone down when I was resting so that it didn’t wake me up. If someone called during that time then they knew that I would call them back when I felt up to it. A few people would text me and say, “call when you feel like talking”. That was great too!

Have a conversation about what works best for them and for you.

Or, if you still feel uneasy about it, send a card, a letter, or an email, and let them know you’re thinking about them. I loved getting mail during that time. Especially letters. One friend sent me letters all throughout my treatments and it was something I looked forward to. I could read them right away, or even take with me to chemo treatments and write back to help pass the time.

6) Similarly, don’t tell them that you’ve been checking on them through someone else.

I had a couple of people that said this to me, and honestly, it made me feel like they just didn’t care enough to take the time.

Make the effort to personally let them know that you’re thinking of them and wishing them well. You can do it in your own way, like the letters, cards, or texts I mentioned above, but do it yourself.

7) This shouldn’t have to be said, but unfortunately it does….respect their body and their privacy.

Don’t ask to touch their bald head, see their port, or their scar after surgery. If they choose to show you these things, that’s their choice, but never ask.

It’s like what I hear from women who have been, or are pregnant, and random strangers come up and rub their bellies. Just because someone is outwardly going through something, and you are curious, doesn’t mean you can, or should, not respect normal boundaries.

This sounds over the top, but I actually had these things happen several different times during my treatments.

8) Don’t tell them about your relative, or your friend of a friend who had cancer and all about how their treatment process went…unless they ask.

You may think you’re helping, or being soothing, but unless they have asked you for this information, you’re not.

This is two-fold. First, everyone’s experience is completely different. Even if two people have the same type of cancer, in the same place, and the same treatment plan, the process itself will be different for both of them. So telling someone that your friend’s cousin went through it and came out just fine, or that your aunt had it and she had a hard time, isn’t helpful.

I had someone tell me that their sister had cancer and her experience with chemo and the surgery was awful, but they hoped mine would be better.

If they ask you if you know anyone who has been through a similar experience, you can tell them. Otherwise, just don’t.

9) During the treatments, and even after they are over, be careful with how you encourage them.

This is another one that may sound a little weird, but what I mean by this is, don’t force positivity just to try to avert hard emotions. And don’t expect them not to still get frustrated with normal things.

For example, when my hair started growing back, I was frustrated with it sometimes because it came back a completely different texture than what I was used to. My hair was originally stick straight, and it came back super curly. On top of that, I have never had short hair so I didn’t have a clue how to style it.

People who haven’t had a disease that has caused them to lose their hair complain about their hair and no one says anything. But if you have, they say things like, “well at least you have hair now”, or “you should be happy that you have hair”, or “you should be thankful it’s growing back”. It feels like we lose the right to be normal humans who sometimes complain about things. And yes, I know that I should be thankful, and I am most of the time, but when I’m frustrated with it, reminding me of that just makes it worse.

Others have had people tell them that they should be happy they are so skinny from being sick with the treatments. “I’d kill to be that skinny, you should be thankful for that”. It’s a way trying to get people to see the positive in things, but very misguided a lot of times.

10) Know that it is ok to feel uncomfortable with someone you know being diagnosed with cancer. Especially if it’s someone you’re close to.

It’s not just hard on the person going through the treatments. Yes, they are getting the worst of it all, but it’s hard on those around them as well. They deal with a lot of emotions of their own. Watching someone, especially someone you love, go through all of that isn’t easy.  

And remember, you don’t have to feel completely comfortable to help in some way, or to be there for them in some way. Be honest about how you feel, if you can. If you can’t for whatever reason, refer back to #3 and do what you can.

11) Remember that you are allowed to have your own life, your own events, and your own issues.

This is strictly my opinion, and my experience, but I didn’t want people to pretend not to have any problems, or to feel like they couldn’t come to me with things they were excited about. I never wanted people to stop living their lives because mine was temporarily altered.

People either wouldn’t want to bother me with their problems because “mine were bigger”, or they wouldn’t want to tell me things they were excited about because what I could do was so limited at times. They felt like they were bragging or rubbing it in my face that they could go out and do these things and I couldn’t.

You can use discernment, and maybe not come right after a treatment when someone is the most tired and sick, but still allow them in. If you don’t, it can leave them feeling left out and unimportant at a time when they need all the reminders they can get that life continues on the other side of their treatments.

12) Be understanding about the fact that some of the side effects from the medicines, and the overall experience, can last for a long time after the treatments are over.

Just because someone has had their last chemo treatment, and recovered from their surgery, doesn’t always mean that they just bounce back completely. As I’ve said, everyone’s experience is different, but a lot of people have side effects from the medicines for years after even. I’m a little over 4 years out, in remission, and still deal with issues from time to time that directly stem from my treatments.

This isn’t meant to be a discouragement to anyone by any means. I simply want to point this out because those that you help through treatments, may also need help from time to time after treatments as well. Or at the very least a little extra encouragement and understanding.