Family & Friends: 10 Ways They Can REALLY Help

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • So, you’ve got breast cancer. The line has been drawn in the sand: life before breast cancer. Life after breast cancer. And you’re just beginning to realize that not only do you now have a life-threatening illness, you still have to deal with all the challenges in your life – big and small – that were stressing you out BEFORE breast cancer.

    Life marches on. Family, friends, job… they’re all still there. Demanding your attention. Attention you seem unable to focus on, given that big gorilla sitting in the corner.

    What’s a survivor to do?

    Accept help. It feels like everyone you’ve ever known is suddenly phoning and asking what they can do to help, right? The ladies from church. Your colleagues at work. Your Friday-afternoon-margarita girlfriends.

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    And sadly, these offers of help probably feel like just one more daunting task; one more organizational detail in a life that’s suddenly falling to pieces.

    Well, don’t just say “No thanks” or “I’m fine” to these offers of help, simply because you can’t think straight. Take a look at the following list of Things People Can Do That’ll REALLY Help.  Add your own tweaks. Print it out. Keep it in the kitchen, by the phone; make another copy for your purse.

    And next time someone says, “Now, what can I do to help you?”…

    Tell them.

    1) Beyond a higher power (if you’re spiritual), the first and most important person to ask for help is yourself.

    Give yourself permission to doff the Superwoman cape and be needy for awhile. Shed the Cloak of Perfection. Get out of “I-can-do-it-all” mode… because you can’t.

    Trying to keep your life “normal” through cancer treatment by accomplishing all the day-to-day tasks you waded through prior to cancer is both foolish, and dangerous. You need to rest, both physically, and emotionally. You need to de-stress.

    How to let go? Learn to say “Yes, please,” and “Thank you.” Four simple words. Not signs of weakness, but of acceptance. An understanding that in order to beat cancer and resume the life you love, you have to lay low for awhile – uncomfortable though that feels.

    2) Meals: This is one of the most common things friends will volunteer: bringing food. But if you say yes to everyone who offers to cook dinner, you’ll soon find yourself overwhelmed with American chop suey and chicken casserole, which not only lose their luster quickly, but take up LOTS of freezer space.

    The solution? The first person who asks, reply that you’d love them to head up the volunteer meals program. Ask this friend if s/he feels comfortable creating your own personalized “meals on wheels” team. Propose a schedule you feel comfortable with: 5 days a week for a month, twice a week for 4 months, whatever you think will work for your particular treatment. Then hand off the responsibility entirely – no micro-managing!

    Which doesn’t mean you can’t be involved. Propose dishes you know your family likes – share your “secret” recipe, if necessary. Be sure to write down any allergies – both yours, and family members’.

  • And don’t be afraid to draw up a “no, thanks” list of foods: the little old lady down the street may think mashed turnips and chicken stew is the best comfort meal ever, but she probably hasn’t had to feed small children for many decades.

    3) Leave room in the meal schedule for takeout. You have friends and colleagues who just don’t like to cook, right? Don’t torture them by suggesting that’s what you need. Instead, draw up a list of favorite restaurant meals, and tell them you’d LOVE a stuffed deep-dish pizza from Gilberto’s Saturday night… hold the mushrooms, please.

    4) Yes, we’re still on food. Don’t forget breakfast and lunch, especially for the kids. There’ll be mornings you just can’t stand the thought of slapping together a PB & J sandwich.

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    If there are freezable sandwiches your kids enjoy, ask someone to make you up a batch, individually wrapped. Stash them in the freezer. When it’s lunch-packing time, Just grab a frozen sandwich, put it in the backpack or lunchbox, add a piece of fruit and a couple of bucks for milk and a treat, and the kids are good to go.

    And what about breakfast? Cold cereal is OK for weekdays, but weekends demand something special.

    Suggest to friends that home-baked treats would be more than welcome. Muffins and pastries, zapped for a few seconds in the microwave, taste fresh-baked. Pancakes can be frozen and reheated in the toaster. If your kids are old enough to fend for themselves, point out where the goodies are. If they’re small, it’s easy to warm a mini muffin and pour a glass of juice.

    5) Errands. Someone has to grocery shop, pick up the dry cleaning, take back library books, and buy postage stamps. And it doesn’t have to be you.

    Sit down and make a list of errands (including grocery shopping) that can be done on a weekend. When one of your working friends offers help, ask if she can tack your errands onto the ones she’s probably already running on Saturday morning.

    6) Housecleaning. Even when you’re feeling your best, scrubbing the shower stall and Windexing those floor-to-ceiling windows probably aren’t on your list of favorite chores. And now, when even lifting your arms is a challenge, you’ll probably reach a new level of avoidance with housework.

    You may not feel comfortable asking a work colleague to clean your bathroom. Luckily, you have options. Cleaning for a reason™ offers free cleaning services, by professional cleaners, for cancer patients in selected areas. It's not nationwide yet, but check it out.


    Many high schools and colleges have organizations matching students with service projects; our local college will send strapping 21-year-olds to rake your lawn, wash windows, shovel snow… all free, if you’re undergoing cancer treatment. Your hospital’s social workers will be able to point you to any such services available locally.

    7) Choose one of your friends who’s got it together, organizationally speaking, and isn’t squeamish about health issues. Ask her to come with you to your various doctor’s appointments, especially the array of initial appointments with the surgeon(s), radiation oncologist, and oncologist.

  • You’re going to be presented with a wealth of information, very quickly; it’s awfully difficult to process everything the doctor says while you’re still trying to deal with the fact that you have cancer. A friend can take notes (or tape-record your appointment), then help you make sense of everything later on.

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    8) If walking the dog twice a day was one of your responsibilities, ask one of your dog-loving friends to be on call for those days when you just can’t hack it.

    Dog-walking is actually a good way to get yourself moving most of the time; the fatigue brought on by treatment is often alleviated by exercise. But if/when you’re glued to the couch (or the bathroom) for the day – identify your designated dog walker. And the same person can handle any vet appointments during your several months of treatment.

    9) Rides: If you have kids, they need rides. Period. You must have a friend or even casual acquaintance whose child’s schedule pretty closely matches that of your own. Giving rides is actually one of the easiest ways to help – heck, Soccer Mom is going from point A to point B anyway, and in most towns point C (your home) isn’t THAT far out of the way. This help is particularly welcome after surgery, when you may be advised to avoid driving for up to 6 weeks.

    10) Don’t forget your spouse of significant other. Your life partner is going through tough times, perhaps just as tough as you are. S/he could use a break. Ask friends to take care of YOUR caretaker for a night: a movie and dinner, beer and a ballgame… Whatever will take his mind off you for a few hours – and the fact that he can’t “fix” things for you – will do you both a world of good.

    Remember – nothing you ask is an imposition. Friends and family – heck, even perfect strangers – want to help you through this rough time.

    Be generous; let go of false pride. Tell you ego to pipe down, and simply say, “Yes, please,” and “Thank you.”

Published On: June 02, 2010