When folks learned I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, their first response was almost always to offer help. Not everyone diagnosed knows what she might need or wants help from others — but I did. One of my BFFs joked I was going to become too lazy to ever do anything for myself again. I fear that may have actually happened.
Here are some things that helped me and ideas for how you can help others during a breast cancer journey.
It gets lonely when you’re home sick, especially after the initial surge has waned. Indeed, the feelings of isolation and missing out were perhaps the most difficult part of this whole journey for me. Please, don’t just drop by — schedule a visit if possible. And know it might be canceled at the last minute, even as you’re ringing the doorbell. Many of us on breast cancer journeys don’t know how we’re going to feel from minute to minute, and even carefully made plans sometimes have to be rescheduled. Offer to be an on-call visitor: It’s nice to have people willing to visit on short notice when you need a lift. I wish I’d created a code word to text my BFFs, something like “goose poo,” that would mean, “Someone visit me now: I’m on the floor in my jammies sobbing.”
2. Randomly drop off something loved.
One of my absolute very favorite things is fresh flowers and receiving them really perked me up. For others, a fave thing might be chocolate or scented lotions. Whatever it is, bring it to us — but please don’t expect to visit when you’re dropping off. We might be sleeping, in too much pain or just not in the mood to talk.
3. Share healthy food.
If a meal train has been organized, use it to avoid “over-fooding.” We received so much food, especially at the beginning of my journey, we had to move “buy fridge for basement” from No. 27 on our to-do list to No. 1. Drop off portions in several small containers so some can be frozen. The meal train also will help you learn what the person likes, as well as what she can’t eat. During chemo, many of us can’t eat raw food, such as sushi or even salad, or anything spicy. And while there’s certainly a temptation to eat nothing but macaroni and cheese and beer during chemo, our bodies need healthy whole, rather than processed, food.
4. Keep in touch.
Send cards, emails, texts, social media messages and make calls. Several friends, family members and co-workers sent me cards on the regular, and every card I received brightened my mood. We almost had to buy more furniture where I could prop my cards. I also loved receiving drawings from my friends’ kids. Nothing says “happy” and “live to the fullest” like a child’s coloring. Send anything funny, no matter how corny, that elicits a laugh. Anything hopeful and inspiring is great, too. Just hearing from folks and knowing they were rooting for me was so empowering. During some of my less-than-optimistic moments, I’d re-read the cards on my mantel and scroll back through Facebook posts and texts. It would remind me I had an A-list team walking with me.
5. Help with chores.
Grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry, yard work — all the things you just love to do at your own home can be especially hard for a cancer patient to complete. One of my neighbors would text me as she was headed to the grocery, and I’d reply with a list and then just repay her. My yard will never look good as it did this summer after a crew of friends helped with landscaping and planting.
6. Give from the heart.
I now have a collection of things I will always treasure from friends I just adore: a hand-knitted shawl, a rock with the word “courage,” artwork, stuffed animals, a thin silver bracelet with “never give up” stamped on top and one with a bead for each of my Noble Circle sisters, a medal with a pink ribbon that reads: “I kicked cancer’s butt: What’s your superpower?” I also received Reiki, restorative yoga and meditation sessions, and a foot massage from friends who are healers. A list of books, movies, TV shows and anything to stream on Netflix you love and think we might enjoy is also a useful and thoughtful gift.
7. Offer rides.
I couldn’t drive for long periods of time thanks to being on pain medications or just being in pain. Some of my trips to doctor appointments turned into lunch or shopping dates, adding a dose of fun to something that is anything but.
8. Make a play date.
Offer to take us out for some fun times so we can get out of our Hobbit hole and back into the real world. My adventures included pedicures and manicures, lots of wonderful meals, and attending a poetry class, festivals and art exhibits. Invite us out to do things you think we’ll enjoy, but that aren’t too physically taxing. If we can’t get out of the house, bring the adventures to our door. For example, two of my main gals brought over brunch stuff and cooked for me one day when I was really sick. It was such a relief to laugh with them without having to leave the comfort of my sleep recliner.
9. Help with organizing.
One thing’s for sure: Cancer patients have a lot of paper, whether it’s bills, receipts, care instructions or manuals about caring for wigs. It’s almost too much for one brain, especially one in a chemo fog, to process. Staying on top of things is tough when you’re sick. One of my friends helped gather addresses for thank you notes (which reminds me I still need to write those … ) and another created a Lotsa Helping Hands page for me to organize the assistance I needed to come out strong on the other side.
10. Offer to help the primary caregiver.
Whether a spouse, partner, friend or family member, it’s likely one or two people are doing the bulk of the dirty work. And it’s definite those folks are stressed, too. My partner went to a lot of rock shows, played cards and went to movies with his friends to blow off steam. Drop off something for the primary caregiver along with those flowers.
>> PERSONAL JOURNEY: The gift of cancer: Why I’ve never been luckier