When I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, my daughter was only 6 years old. It was a difficult time, full of uncertainty, fear, anger, helplessness. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted most of the time, and so did my husband and our young daughter as well. When cancer hits, it sweeps through the whole family.
After slowly coming to terms with the diagnosis, we began telling family and close friends. And as the news filtered out to our wider community of friends, neighbours, colleagues, and even acquaintances, we found people wanted to help but weren’t always sure what to do or how to ask. In the end, it was simpler and easier for everyone if we just let people know exactly what we needed and how they could help.
So here’s a list of 10 things you can do for someone going through cancer:
1. Deliver a meal. It doesn’t have to be fancy or made of only organic ingredients. If you are making a meal for your own family, double it up and bring it over. Remember to not only think of the cancer patient but the rest of the family, which may include young children. A batch of pasta sauce that can be frozen for later use is a good option. Here’s a handy and free scheduling tool called the Care Calendar. Family and friends can use this to coordinate meals. http://www.carecalendar.org
2. Show up on their doorstep with an empty laundry basket. Routine household chores are probably not high on their priority list, but still need to get done sooner or later. Returning a basketful of freshly laundered and folded clothes will be a tremendous help.
3. Run errands or pick up a few groceries. If you are worried about showing up at the wrong time, have them leave a list in the mailbox that you can pick up in the morning, or pre-arrange a convenient time. If you are doing a run to the pharmacy or grocery store anyway, picking up some extra items is not a big deal.
4. Provide childcare. If they have young children, invite them over for a play date with your children. If you don’t have kids, or their kids are older, take them on an outing. Going to a movie will be a welcome distraction. Even a sleepover may work if the child is okay with being away from home. The parent(s) may need a break, as young children don’t understand why mommy or daddy is so tired all the time. Or the parents may need some alone time to chat. And the children may need time away from home to have some fun.
5. Accompany/drive them to appointments and treatments. Having a note-taker during medical appointments is crucial. Doctors pass on a lot of information and use a lot of medical terms, which may not be fully grasped in the moment. Sitting with them during a treatment may be reassuring and will help to pass the time. Even a friendly and familiar face out there in the waiting room can be a source of comfort.
6. Do exercise, yoga, meditation with them. Any type of activity that is enjoyable and good for their well-being will be welcome. It will help them feel better and gives you both something to focus on besides trying to fill up those awkward gaps in conversation.
7. Check in with their spouse or caregiver. They are often forgotten in all of this. They are usually doing double duty especially if there are kids involved so they can be physically and emotionally drained.
8. Don’t be afraid to talk to the kids about it. Adults are often afraid to bring up bad news with kids. They don’t want to upset them but kids are intuitive. They know what’s going on. They will probably appreciate it if you ask how mom or dad or their sibling is doing. They may need someone outside of the family circle to talk to. If you’re unsure about this, check with the parents first.
9. Just be there and listen. Don’t offer advice (unless specifically asked for) and don’t bring up stories about Aunt Mary who went through the same thing. Everyone’s experience is different. Sit, hold their hand, pass a tissue, give a hug, make a cup of tea, let them be the lead.
10. Send a card. It will let them know you are aware of what’s going on and you are thinking of them. Emily McDowell’s empathy cards will hit just the right note.
It was truly heartwarming when so many people found ways to help us during my cancer experience. And it wasn’t only family and close friends but distant neighbours, friends of friends, people we know casually. We will always be grateful for the heartfelt support we received during this difficult time. It made the journey that much easier. As The Beatles sang so well, “Oh I get by with a little help from my friends”.
Colleen Kanna is a breast cancer champion and creator of coKANna designs, a line of bamboo knit, Canadian-made clothing for women touched by breast cancer. Please check out her website at www.cokanna.ca.