Role Reversal: How I Learned to Let Others Care for Me When I Had Breast Cancer

Health Writer

I don’t usually ask for help. I cook dinner for my husband and kids most nights. I do all the food shopping, and planning for vacations and social get togethers.

I’ve also been the mom (OK, I admit it, a helicopter one at times) who’s helped my kids apply for schools, scholarships, and internships.

But then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was not a good time; but when is it ever with a cancer diagnosis?

I had just taken my firstborn son to college thousands of miles away and it was a busy year. I was learning to parent from a distance and coordinating all his travel home for vacations, making arrangements for parent’s weekend, and more. My younger son was not only applying to New York high schools (a whole process of test-taking, visiting schools, applying, etc.) but he was also going to have a bar mitzvah in a few months. I was the family’s chef, travel agent, party planner. And that didn’t include my full-time job as a writer.

I had a lot on my plate. Yet, I wasn’t going to let cancer stop me from living my life. In between all the regular stuff, I had numerous doctor visits and two surgeries. Then I started a course of monthly chemo and six weeks of daily radiation treatments.

I didn’t slow down. I still shopped and cooked dinner. I still researched and planned visits to high schools. I still interviewed restaurants, guitarists, and bus companies for my son’s upcoming celebration.

I was trying to be superwoman. In retrospect, I wonder why?

Learning to let others help

When you’re used to being the caregiver, it’s hard to step back and let others help you. Moms seem particularly bad at this. We are so used to doing it all, we forget about ourselves. I know I did. There was no reason not to pass the baton and let others take over some of these jobs. They were there. They could do it. They were offering.

One relative asked if I wanted her to send over dinner on a day I had chemo. I said I already had something planned. Silly me. Why not come home from treatment and take a nap, let dinner arrive and eat it? What threw me was when she asked where she should order from and what we wanted. It seemed like too much work to figure that out at the time when I had already had veggies and steak in the fridge.

And so I’ve learned that while it’s really nice to say “Let me know if I can do something for you,” to a cancer patient, it’s really better to just do it. Why not say, “I’m going to Costco today and I’m going to pick up a barbequed chicken and some milk for you.” That way, you don’t have to think about what you need. After all, who can’t use a chicken and some milk!

Say, “I’m taking your son to the park so you can nap.” Don’t ask, just do it. Drop by with a casserole to be reheated or a favorite dessert, but then head out quickly to not impose, especially if the person isn’t feeling well.

Or, let me know when you are going to be in the neighborhood and if it’s a good time to stop by instead of asking me to organize a get-together.

Don’t refuse help

I learned the hard way. After a while, the offers stopped coming and then it was too late to get a rain check. I missed out on the chance to sit back and let others do things for me.

I should have known better. Years before, when I was home exhausted after the birth of my son, my husband offered to go to the supermarket. I was the one who always did the shopping. Would he know what brand of turkey we ate and where to go for the ripest tomatoes?

But he truly wanted to help so I let him. I handed over a list and snuggled up to my baby. He didn’t buy the exact kind of turkey we usually had or the tomatoes I might have picked... but who cared. I could sit back, nurse, nap, and recover. It is nice to be cared for.

Sometimes it’s hard to say “yes” to support when you’re used to being the one who does it all. But it’s a great skill to learn. Let other help you. By doing so, you’re actually helping them and yourself.

Lesson learned!

See more helpful articles:

How to Accept Help: Just Say Yes

Break that Unspoken Cancer Rule: Be Real! Complain a Little!

You’ve Got to Have Friends: On My 10-Year Anniversary of Being Cancer-Free, I Am Not Alone