When the bomb drops: diagnosis, misdiagnosis, metastasis, recurrence . . . no one ever feels completely equipped to help another person deal with the realities of life with cancer.
We become pseudo-experts at all of the stages and aliases that malignancy goes by. We google it. We share success stories and horror stories. Which, by the way, people don’t really love hearing.
“Well, my step-dad Bob . . .”
And “my co-worker’s daughter . . .”
We choose our words carefully and hold our breath for test results. We spend millions of dollars on pink ribbons, and we show up for all of the different races-to-cure. But deep inside, many of us are still doubting that our actions and intentions can really make a difference when someone we care about is faced with this disease.
Viki Stoops, who has supported several close family members through almost every stage and type of cancer over the last decade, still struggled recently to find the right words, the right gift, the right time to voice concern, the right time to let go, as she watched her beloved cousin navigate oncology appointments and treatment decisions from across the country. Most of the time, she was pretty sure she wasn’t doing or saying the right thing.
Reaching out to another person is always an act of vulnerability, and sometimes we will trip over our words or offer support in ways that others are not ready to receive. But the risk of helping is almost always one worth taking.
It’s in the willingness to be there – to hold space, meet someone where they are and listen to their needs – that our greatest opportunities for connection and healing are always found.
Hand-written notes, home-cooked meals, positive thoughts and prayers are usually a safe bet, but when it seems like there is no card on the rack that truly captures the weight of your care and concern, it’s OK not to buy a card. Unless, of course, you can find a card like one of these:
Irreverence, humor and unfiltered honesty are like a breath of fresh air to those who have had more than their share of serious conversations, according to Meaghan Earley, owner of M of Hope, a boutique specializing in gifts for the cancer-fighting crowd. Some of her most popular items (like the Emily McDowell empathy cards above) would make your grandmother blush, but the shop also carries gifts, clothing and accessories geared toward helping women feel comfortable and beautiful during and after cancer treatment.
The idea for M of Hope took root when Meaghan helped her mother through breast cancer treatment by creating mini-celebrations after each chemo session and medical milestone. She wanted to provide an uplifting space that picked up where traditional retailers fell short, like post-mastectomy bra shopping, for example. Before long, her customers’ universal need for a heavy dose of relaxation and fun became the impetus for a monthly Bald IS Beautiful event. With the support of many local business owners and artists, this includes a complimentary evening of pampering and self-care services such as healing henna, reiki treatments, manicures, massages, organic tea, chemo haircuts and mini portrait sessions.
Treatment Ends, but Support Doesn’t Have To
Melissa Garbincus loved the idea of catching up on some of the fun she missed out on over the last year, when breast cancer treatments, doctor appointments, pain, fatigue and endless lab work took the place of her normal routines. Thanks to an amazing program sponsored by the Karen Wellington Memorial Foundation for Living with Breast Cancer, she recently enjoyed a week of smiles, laughter and relaxation with her husband and two children in Bonita Springs, FL. That’s the part of the story we all like to see. The happy ending. The victory.
But for Melissa, the battle is not over, and in a recent conversation, she shared how the perceptions of strength and bravery that people often attribute to those fighting cancer leaves an important part of the story untold. “What choice did I have? I am not going to lay down and refuse treatment and give up on my kids. The doctors tell me the treatments that give me the best chance to stay alive, and I say ‘Sign me up.’ There was nothing strong or brave about it. In fact, many times I am just the opposite.”
Following treatment, Melissa was confronted with a whole new range of emotions, including fear, anxiety and depression that she wasn’t completely expecting. “It’s frustrating to have people say ‘Congrats! You beat it! You did it!’ . . . while I worry every day about it showing up somewhere in my body. I still hurt every day, and I am dealing with side effects of the hormone blockers that I will be on for at least the next 10 years.” So while Melissa thanks God daily and finds joy in the simple act of being here to kiss her children, she also wants others to know that ongoing support can be just as important as the prayers, cards, texts and phone calls she received after diagnosis, perhaps even more so.
Care for the Caregiver
Finally, if we want to help someone who is fighting cancer, then our support should also extend to the people who are battling alongside them, such as spouses and immediate family members. In the spring of 2012, Sherri Martz found herself juggling a teaching schedule at Youngstown State University with daily long-distance travel as her husband underwent several months of lung cancer treatment at the Cleveland Clinic, over an hour away from home. It was a family joke that Bob only had one job to do that whole time: “Just don’t die.” Which, of course, left everything else up to Sherri.
Anytime someone thought to ask how she was doing really meant a lot during those long, busy days. The outpouring of support on social media also helped. Sherri would read comments and posts to Bob, who was always uplifted and surprised by how many people were concerned about his well being. One day in particular, Sherri was feeling isolated and alone at the Hope Lodge, while Bob was in the hospital with treatment complications. He couldn’t manage to eat or drink anything and his radiation had to be postponed. Lying in bed, Sherri typed one sentence, “Some days are hard. They just are.” And the supportive responses of friends and family pulled her back into a place of hopeful connection. Sometimes “help” can be as simple as a thoughtful comment or a quick text that says “I’m thinking of you.” Somehow, those type of caring messages often seem to reach people just when they need to receive them.
When it feels like there’s nothing you can possibly do to help, try to remember that people just want to know someone cares. Sometimes the simplest actions are the most powerful, and a few words can change the course of a downward spiraling day.
Other ways that Viki, Meaghan, Melissa and Sherri felt supported by friends and family include:
- Teachers sent texts to Melissa, so she could see her children enjoying themselves with classmates during the day. This also helped her feel connected to school events when she couldn’t be there in person.
- When you do something to help, follow up by saying, “Please don’t send me a thank you card, or I will be upset that I gave you one more thing to worry about doing.” Melissa loved this one so much that she adopted it as a personal mantra anytime she offers help to other people.
- Sherri especially appreciated the friends and family who helped with her pets, so she could be away from home without worrying about their needs. A friend came by daily to feed and visit her cats, while her son and daughter-in-law took her dog into their home for two months during the heaviest phase of treatment.
- Do you know your way around the hospital system? Sherri and Bob loved having help navigating the parking garages and buildings of the Cleveland Clinic. And it never hurts to have an extra set of ears (or a diligent note taker) in on doctor appointments when patients and family members are often overwhelmed with information.
- The best advice Viki received was to not look too far ahead. “Cancer is always filled with unanswered questions, which leads to a million other variables and questions. The ‘what ifs’ can drive you insane.” A friend encouraged her to ask herself, “Is this something I need to worry about now? Or should I wait and worry once I have all the information?”
- Don’t wait to be asked. It can be difficult for many people to accept help, let alone ask for it. Offering specific things you can do (picking kids up from school, grabbing a few groceries while you’re at the store or taking their dog for a walk) was something that all of our contributors found helpful. Less decision making for them!
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