My recent post, Chris’ Cancer Update and My Bad Mood, earned a comment from my friend, Jessica. She said, “Robin, you have every right to have these feelings… and anyone who has taken the time to read an article on How Can I Help A Friend Who Has Cancer would already have read exactly what you have written.” Her statement made me curious about what those articles said. I found articles about How to Help a Friend with Cancer and How to Help a Family when a Child has Cancer but nothing about helping the rest of the family when one member has cancer. It seems to me that with more available treatments that hold the cancer in check, there will be more families dealing with cancer as a long-term illness. And they will be dealing with the cancer (continuously) for longer periods of time.
When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, many people offer their help. We had lots of help when Chris was diagnosed. And we are very thankful. We have some friends who we know we can call for anything and they will be there. We have acquaintances who have given our family so much in the way of help we will never be able to repay their kindness (AG specifically). There are teachers who have listened to the boys. There are friends who have listened to me. There is Chris’ best friend (MH) who is there every day. But as I reflect on my Bad Mood, I realized that there is much that we would never, ever ask for but could desperately use. As Chris has been fighting his cancer for 26 months now, there is much that has gone by the wayside. So here is my attempt at suggestions for how you can help the entire family when one member has cancer.
HOW TO HELP A FAMILY WHO HAS CANCER
One of the first things to understand, is that the entire family is dealing with cancer. Not just the person with the cancer in their body. Every member of the family deals with the cancer on a daily basis. It is not something that you can forget about. It is not something that will go away. For kids, it is my belief, it shapes their childhood. But it is inescapable.
Celebrate the Spouse’s Accomplishments – When Chris was diagnosed, I was working on finishing my Master’s Degree in Special Education. I graduated 5 months after his diagnosis. It was just another day in our household. There was no graduation ceremony, as I got my degree online. But there was no recognition of my accomplishment. Yes, I realize that I got my degree at a weird time (in March – because I had to get an extension because of Chris’ hospitalization and diagnosis). But, I graduated with a 3.98 GPA and well, it deserved to be celebrated. As Chris was in no condition to do anything for me, it would have been nice if someone stepped up and did something for me.
Take the Kids Shopping – This goes with Celebrating the Spouse’s Accomplishments. Often times Chris isn’t feeling up to managing the boys on a shopping trip. I understand this. But it is depressing to have to take your own kids to buy you a gift for Mother’s Day, your Birthday, and Christmas. Calling and telling me that you are picking the kids up, taking them shopping and then bringing them home would be welcome. And don’t ask if I need you to do it, just tell me you are doing it.
Give the Kids Rides – Here’s another big one. If your kid and my kid are going to the same place, call me and tell me that you are picking my kid up or bringing them home. I am trying to make sure that my kid’s lives are as normal as possible, but with everything that is on my plate, it is just plain exhausting.
Invite Me Over (Invite the Kids Over) – We need to get out of our place sometimes. We like to visit with friends. We never know how Chris is going to be feeling, so it makes it difficult to have people over. If he isn’t feeling well, and we do have someone over, we worry that we are bothering him. So, we tend not to have people over. It is isolating.
Ask Me to Do the Things You Would Have Before We Had Cancer – I know. You don’t want to put anymore on my plate. You don’t want to ask me to babysit or bake for the cookie exchange. But, please do. If it is more than I can handle, I will say “no.” But not giving me the opportunity to say “yes” takes something from me. I babysat my nieces today (they are almost 3 and just turned 5). I don’t get to see them enough, but I was lucky enough to get them twice this week. They bring me such joy. They make me laugh. Being able to share Sammy’s excitement about loosing her first tooth and hearing Bree tell me that she isn’t a baby anymore and that the baby is in Mommy’s tummy is priceless. These moments won’t wait and I am able, for a short time, to forget that my life is so stressful. It also makes me feel better about asking for or accepting your help.
Offer to go with My Spouse for Treatments – Or better yet, show up when you know I can’t be there. I am trying to hold down a job and take care of my family. Sometimes I just can’t be there. I feel guilty, but there isn’t much I can do. I hate that Chris had to go to chemo treatments alone. Same for radiation. But I really need to be there for the big appointments (like the one this week). So, knowing that someone else is able to keep him company lessens my guilt that I can’t be in two places at once.
Don’t Think Your Problems Are Too Little To Be Shared – I want you to treat me as you would any friend. I don’t want to hear that compared to my problems, your problems are nothing. Your problems are your problems. Just because we are dealing with Cancer the world hasn’t stopped. In fact, it is sometimes going on without us. When you don’t share your problems with me, you aren’t letting me be your friend. It isn’t always about ME. I know this. When things are tough, I expect you to listen. When you need to talk or vent, I expect to listen. That is the way a friendship works.
Don’t Make Me More Than I Am – I am a person. Just like you. None of us knows how we will handle things until we have to handle them. We do what we have to because we don’t have any other choices. Yes, I am strong. But what other choice do I have, crawl in a hole and hide? Tell me you admire my strength and courage. Don’t tell me you don’t know how I do it. I get out of bed one leg at a time, just like you. I put on a positive face and smile. Often times I fake it.
Don’t Tell Me God Only Gives Us What We Can Handle – Do you know what my religious beliefs are? If you do, then maybe this statement is appropriate. If you don’t, then don’t tell me that God is good and that he will bring us a miracle. Don’t tell me that God doesn’t give out more than can be handled. Don’t tell me that God answers prayers and that He has a plan. Cancer sucks. There is no bright side to cancer. It doesn’t matter if I believe in God or not, there is no way that cancer was something that was meant to be. You can tell me that you are praying for us. Even if I don’t believe in God or the power of prayer, it tells me that you are thinking of us and care. A wonderful lady I worked with at AAUW Preschool in Waukegan, IL (RuthAnn – and I’ve blanked on your last name) always forwards my updates to a group of friends who are known as the Prayer Warriors. They pray for Chris. It is comforting to me, that RuthAnn is thinking of us. And prayers can’t hurt.
Don’t Tell Me About Others Who Had Cancer – Breast Cancer is not the same as Lung Cancer (I have written about this before, and I think that I’ve said my peace on the subject, for now). Every cancer is different. Chances are you don’t know a thing about Chris’ cancer. It is rare. But regardless, every situation is different. Hearing of others who have “beat” the cancer isn’t inspiring. It is actually depressing. And truly, it is irrelevant. I don’t give a sh–. Unless it is you who has cancer or has beaten it. And then, most likely, you won’t mention it unless it is relevant to the conversation because you know. If you have not been there, you have no clue. Let me rephrase that – there are people who have a clue (LB you are one of them). People who are dealing with the uncertainty of a chronic illness have some idea. But knowing someone who has gone through it, is not the same as experiencing it yourself. You cannot know. I have no idea of what Chris is going through with his cancer. I haven’t had chemo or radiation. I haven’t had to face my mortality. What I do know is how a spouse would feel. I’m an expert in that area. Unfortunately. And there are very few people who understand (MM, I know that you do). And there are even fewer who are my age, who have children they are still raising.
Be There – My neighbor across the hall is not a good friend of mine. She is running with her kids (one is Special Needs) and her husband is gone most of the time. I am dealing with my life. We don’t really have anything in common. Her oldest is younger than Michael. But she lost a baby (he was 18 months) to brain cancer. When I got home from the Oncologist appointment the other day, I wasn’t ready to go in and face the boys. Her car was there, so I stopped by her place. When I walked in, the tears were already coming. I told her I needed 5 minutes. 5 minutes to cry before I could face the boys and be positive. 5 minutes to let it all out. She gave me a hug and she was just there. She didn’t tell me it was going to be alright (it isn’t). She didn’t tell me that we aren’t given more than we can handle. She didn’t really say much. She was just there. She was just what I needed at that moment. And when I was ready to leave, she told me I looked beautiful and that I could come by any time I needed a break.
My best friend, Kathy (who lives in Illinois), is another example of being there. When she got the latest update about Chris she replied, “You know.” And yes I do. She has visited a number of times since we moved to Colorado and the number of trips increased after Chris’ diagnosis. If I need her, she will be on a plane. But really, there isn’t much she can do. I know that she is there. I know that I can call her and tell her anything. I know that even though we don’t talk frequently as our lives are going at different speeds and time-zones, that she is there.
Be there for Chris. Send him cards in the mail on a regular basis. Send him funny emails or comic books. Ask me what would brighten his day (he loves Drumsticks – the ice cream, and Hershey’s with Almonds). Call him (although he isn’t much of a phone person), IM or text him. The thing is that you need to do it regularly. Not just when we get bad news. He is dealing with his cancer every single day. He has good days and he has bad days. He sees the Oncologist every month. At the end of the month. Do something for him that tells him that you are thinking of him. Do it before he gets bad news. When he gets bad news, he wants to forget about it (as much as he can). Be aware that if you are calling to talk with him after he gets bad news, you are doing it to make yourself feel better. You aren’t helping him any. He’s a nice guy and will hold your hand, but really shouldn’t it be the other way around? Think about why you want to do things before you do them. If it isn’t to make Chris feel better or to help him out, don’t.
Don’t Ask, Just Do – Don’t ask if I need anything. My needs are so many, I often can’t figure them out. And didn’t you know, I’m SuperWoman. I can do it all with one hand tied behind my back. Sure. I need someone to come clean my apartment, but I won’t admit it. I won’t let you come clean my toilets because I’m embarrassed that they’ve gotten as bad as they are. Same for the laundry and the dishes. Chris is working full-time and managing his cancer. I will be working close to full-time (I’m hoping to sub in my building when I’m not teaching) and running with the kids. I’m also trying to keep things running in the house. Many times Chris comes home exhausted and isn’t able to do much around here (I’m thankful that he is working), so everything falls on me. Surprise us with home-made cookies. Drop off dinner (make sure I can use it tomorrow because I could have something in the crock-pot). Bring us a movie (maybe a new release that you’ve bought and we can borrow) and popcorn. Arrange a time to take our cars for oil changes. Deal with the chores I can’t manage (like changing the light bulb in the garage – since we don’t have a ladder and I can’t reach on a chair). Hook-up the light system for the boys’ computers that they got as gifts over a year ago and have been sitting in the hallway (I have no clue what I am doing and no ambition to give this task a try. Chris could do it, but it is an unimportant task and therefore it seems that it never gets done). Take the dog for a long walk. Play catch with the boys. Or take them out with your family so they can be “normal” kids. Ask the kids what they need or want. Maybe they’ve been wanting something that their Dad hasn’t been able to do with them. Or they can tell you what would be good for our family (kids don’t have the same ego problems).
When Chris was diagnosed, my co-workers arranged for a cleaning lady to come to my house. They all contributed a little bit of money and the cleaning lady came just before Thanksgiving and again just before Christmas (Chris was diagnosed in October). It was something that I never would have asked for or accepted if someone said, “Would you like someone to come clean your house?” But they didn’t ask – they told me that it was taken care of and stood there while I called and made the appointments. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever gotten. My friend, Angie, arranged for us to get meals for almost a month and a half after Chris’ diagnosis. If I recall, she said that she wanted to do it and asked it if was ok. It was a very generous thing and something I never would have asked for. Mike took Chris’ car to get new tires (Chris asked if he could help me with this – and that we’d give him a check). Mike took the car on his own. Waited for it and then wouldn’t accept any money from us. One of Michael’s classmate’s parents was having dinner at the same restaurant as us and saw us there. She arranged to pay for our dinner and we didn’t know about it until we were ready to pay. Obviously, these are amazingly generous people. But generosity doesn’t have to cost anything (think of my neighbor giving me 5 minutes). And it means as much to a family who is dealing with cancer.