Many patients hear these words from well-meaning friends and family: “I’m so sorry this is happening. How can I help?”
By: Alyssa Burkus Rolf
Many patients hear these words from well-meaning friends and family: “I’m so sorry this is happening. How can I help?” Later in the conversation, it is usually followed up with “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” The offers are well-intentioned and come from the heart, but put the burden of the ask on the patient, many of whom are uncomfortable about asking for help or might be unsure how much help is being offered. (“What if I ask for meals for a month, when really they just wanted to bring me a magazine?”)
It was a joy to me when those in my circle found their own ways to support me during treatment. Whether little treats or a home cooked meal, each time it happened, it reminded me that others were thinking about me and wanting to help me get through it.
My husband went out and found a book called “When Life Becomes Precious: The Essential Guide for Patients, Loved Ones, and Friends of Those Facing Serious Illness” by Elise Needell Babcock (still in print today). The book gave him insight and ideas to help when people asked what they could do, and showed me that he saw this battle as one we would fight together. It’s a book we continue to recommend to those who are trying to provide support to newly diagnosed patients.
Here are my own suggestions for how you can help a loved one during treatment, or at any stage when they are struggling through the stress of their illness:
Track My Chemo Schedule on Your Calendar
Keep track of the treatment schedule (every week? every 21 days? etc.) and call in the days leading up to their next round, just to check in and see how they are feeling. Adjust your tracking to keep up with the changes in their schedule (e.g., if treatment was moved due to low counts, etc.), or make a note to send a card towards the end of their rounds, when help and interest from others can fade.
Send Something Unexpected in the Mail
Remember when you were little and your grandmother sent something to you in the mail? It doesn’t have to be a package, but even a card or magazine can be a wonderful surprise. Many patients feel isolated, or have needed to stay home to protect against infection, and this connection with the outside world is a great reminder that you are not forgotten. My sister-in-law in Florida sent spring pajamas to me just before my last treatment, and I still remember how special it felt to get a package out of the blue.
Help Support My Family
If there are children in the family, drop off nut-free baked goods in freezer bags that can be used for children’s lunches. Bring dinner in a freezable container that can be pulled out when needed. Take the kids to the park or the movies – activities that require energy that neither parent might have, plus it gives them some quiet time at home to decompress. Offer to do their back-to-school shopping, or a “bulk buy” shop at a local Costco/Superstore to help restock the pantry.
Offer to Take Me to Treatment
This can be a day-long commitment, and may be difficult to do if you have your own work or family commitments during the day, but can be a welcomed respite for the family member who usually provides support on treatment day. It also can give you insight into the stressful world of cancer treatment that your friend or family member is dealing with on a regular basis.
Create an “At Home Date Night” Care Package
For couples who are facing a serious illness, creating opportunities for romance or even quiet moments together can be incredibly difficult. Going out to restaurants is tough, and if children are part of the equation, there is often little opportunity for alone time. Instead of bringing a family-style casserole, bring a romantic dinner for two “kit”, with a more grown up version of a meal, dessert, candles and a movie. Bringing food can be tough if the person going through treatment has any dietary restrictions, but even simple grilled chicken and soup or a salad can be the start of a quiet dinner for two.
Walk With Me, Listen To Me
Getting fresh air every day, even just walking around the block or sitting on a park bench, is really important, and keeping someone company or listening to what’s on their mind is an incredible gift to someone who may be overwhelmed by the physical and emotional challenges they are facing.
Support Me Spiritually
Not everyone prays or believes in prayer, but there are lots of ways to offer spiritual hope and support, which may be an incredible gift to a patient. I was amazed when a friend came by one night with a card from a co-worker who had heard about my cancer treatment. I had never met this person (and still have not, even nine years later), but she sent me a tiny angel pin and kind words of encouragement. Asking for prayer from a local church (or Reiki Master, as one of my friends did), sending a small book of poems or prayers, or finding a symbol to represent a source of spiritual strength all can help.
This is only a starting point, and there are lots of great options and ideas. Whatever you decide to do, know that even the most simple gestures are welcome at any time in the journey of a cancer patient. How you choose to show love at a critical time in someone’s life is up to you, but make it personal and from your heart.
Please send your thoughts and own stories – I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me via email at alyssa(at)lymphoma(dot)ca, or follow me on Twitter here:@alyssaburkus