Monday, February 25, 2013

"How can I help her?"

Since becoming a cancer survivor, one of my favorite questions to receive is "How can I help her?" When I get this question I know that there is pure love at work. Someone is taking the time to ask a survivor what helped (or would have helped) them get through it. Everyone is different in the way they approach their treatment, how much they want to talk about it, or how much help they want and need.  But my experience, and interaction with numerous other survivors, brings the following suggestions to mind.

As you consider these suggestions, think about how close you are to her and what feels comfortable and natural based on your relationship, time, and resources available.
  • Stay in touch. Call, write, visit. Cancer isn't contagious but it is isolating. Don't be afraid of "bothering" your loved one. She needs all the support she can get. She may or may not want to talk about it. Play it by ear and take her lead but don't disappear. Sadly, many do. Don't be one of them.
  • Organize a meal train where local friends can sign up to bring meals on certain days. Talk to her about how it works, get her and the family's preferences, sensitivities, and include that information on the website you use. is a great resource for organizing meals.  Another great resource is which allows people to organize different types of support needs.
  • Sign her up for "Cleaning For A Reason" - a free cleaning service for women in breast cancer treatment - provided by local cleaning services who join this awesome program to make a difference in the community. If there aren't any participating providers in her area, call local cleaning services to ask if they'll do it, or commit to showing up and cleaning her house for her if you're a close friend or relative that she's comfortable with.
  • Offer to take her kids out for activities with your own kids, or offer to babysit so she can rest without interruptions.
  • Offer to drive her to the doctor, and/or to visit and play cards or talk during chemo. Chemo appointments are long and it's nice to have a distraction which could be quality time with a friend. Bring a packed lunch, a deck of cards, etc.
  • Take her hat/scarf shopping, or pick up cute hats and scarves to bring her to try on at home. Look up free scarves, hats, headgear for cancer patients online. There's lots of great companies and organizations that offer freebies like that. If she wants a wig, the American Cancer Society offers free wigs to cancer patients and they even carry human hair wigs. I wish I had known about this before I spent money on a wig.
  • Put her on the prayer list at church. Pray for her complete healing and recovery, for her and her family's peace and comfort during this difficult time. 
  • Call her before you go grocery shopping for your own family, and offer to pick things up for her while you're there.
  • Sign her up for free and beautiful handmade cards sent by another These cards are comforting and beautiful. I enjoyed receiving them and I've signed up friends who have enjoyed receiving them.
  • Be patient with her. This is a time of great stress, and the treatment is intense and exhausting. The medications impact her physically and emotionally. Her energy will ebb and flow but won't be predictable. Be flexible. She may feel great one day and awful the next. Be forgiving. It's an emotional roller coaster.  During chemo, I received steroids the first few days of every cycle and I was not a nice person on those days but I couldn't help it - the medicine altered my thinking and my moods. I felt awful that I was mean to those who loved me.  Remember, this is temporary.
  • Organize a fundraiser to help her cover unpaid expenses, or to raise money for local, regional, or national cancer research foundations in her honor. Ask her if she has a favorite charity or a special financial need that you can focus the effort on.
Thank you for caring enough about her to ask how you can help, and for following through to support her during her cancer journey. She's lucky to have you on her support team.

Love and blessings,

COMING SOON - what NOT to do or say when a loved one has cancer. 

Galatians 6:2 "Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Let Them Help & Just Do

When I was caring for David, I felt so helpless. I couldn't take his pain away. I couldn't take his worries away. I certainly couldn't take his cancer away.  I wanted to help him any way I could. I'd offer lots of times. How about I clean the house? Does your daughter need a ride somewhere? What about groceries, can I shop for you? Every time, the answer was a gracefully delivered "no, thanks, honey, just you being here is helpful to me."  While I was happy my presence was comforting to him, I was crushed I couldn't do more.  On days when David couldn't get out of bed, or when I couldn't stand it to not be doing something, I just did stuff for him without, errands, etc. I know he appreciated it but even more so it helped me feel helpful.

Fast forward 11 years and I became the patient.  Surrounded by caring and loving family and friends all wanting to help me. Numerous offers of help and I suddenly realized how David felt. So grateful for their support, but paralyzed by the thought of losing my independence and of becoming a burden or an item on others' to-do lists.

I turned lots of offers of help down, despite knowing how it feels to be in their shoes, AND despite being in need of the help being offered. But about halfway through treatment, something happened that opened my eyes to the dangers of turning help down in times like this. Not only did I need the help, but THEY NEEDED TO HELP and I was taking away the one thing they felt they could do to contribute to my well being.

This journey is NOT only about the patient. It's also about everyone who loves them. Life is about love, relationships, togetherness. Don't let cancer change that. As a patient, understand that loved ones don't just *want* to help, they NEED to. Let them.  Caregivers, understand that it's difficult for your independent loved one to accept help - they don't want to be a burden. Just help and do what you can. Don't just offer, DO. Because although they may turn down offers, they will appreciate everything you follow through and do - especially if and when you aren't requiring them to decide what you can/will do for them.

Love each other through it. That's what life is about, in good times and bad.

"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV)

Love and blessings,

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Gift of Quiet

When I was in chemo, my most common challenges were fatigue and heightened sensitivity to noise. My son was a year old and my spouse was away frequently as a normal part of his job and there were many many days that I didn't know how I would possibly keep my eyes open and fulfill all my basic responsibilities as a mom - even with a sitter during the weekdays, the evenings and weekends were quite a challenge.

It was hugely helpful when friends and neighbors stopped by to take my son for a walk or a few hours of play time at their house so I could rest in silence.

If you can give the gift of quiet time to a friend or family member in cancer treatment, it will be so appreciated and never forgotten. Don't just up with a plan and follow through. Thank you to all my amazing friends who gave me the gift of quiet rest time! Xoxo

Love and blessings,

Luke 6:38

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Caregivers Need Support Too

Just before I was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, I observed the 11-year anniversary of the cancer death of a dear friend and 'significant other' (the word 'boyfriend' never really fit since we were adults).  David was a vibrant, athletic, brilliant, outgoing, and passionate 44 year old who inspired just about everyone he met.  He inspired me so much when we were first colleagues and later became friends, because he was living life so fully all of the time.  By the time he was 40 he had already changed careers several times to follow his dreams of trying different paths.  He was a sheriff's deputy, an attorney, an investment broker, just to name a few.  David dabbled in speed (ice) skating, running, basketball, even gardening!  His personality was magnetic. He remembered names and events and everyone that he interacted with felt like they were the only person in sight because he made everyone feel special. Even while in his third year of perpetual chemotherapy treatment for stage 4 cancer, David was busy making everyone else feel good. 

During a brief visit with him the winter of 1997, I was so moved by David's spirit and love for life that I left my life in Boston and moved across the country to be near him in his final months of life.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into as I took on the role as a member of his caregiver team but I didn't care.  Back then, the internet was pretty new and there wasn't a tremendous amount of information available the way there is today.  Once in California,  I found an online support message board for cancer caregivers. A God-send since I quickly learned that the role of caregiver is as stressful and frightening as the role of patient.

Caregivers (family members, friends, neighbors) take on their role suddenly, unexpectedly, involuntarily, and with no training. In today's typical outpatient cancer treatment delivery model, the caregiver is the traffic cop for patients, navigating doctors' visits and treatment plans as an advocate and often home "nurse", serving as the patient's gatekeeper managing social visitors and helpers, performing and delegating household chores, interpreting and confronting insurance processes and decisions, and much more.  All the while, they're faced with their own worries, fears, and frustrations, feeling helpless and unequipped for their new job in addition to juggling their own personal and professional obligations.  Even secondary caregivers - helpers, friends, and family members on the periphery - struggle with how to talk to or help their loved one after a cancer diagnosis. It's a tremendous stressor and often caregivers' needs are overlooked.

Caregivers suffer profoundly - emotionally and physically.  If you are a caregiver, your fears, pain, worry and frustration are real and valid. You need to be cared for too, even if you don't think so.  Not even the patient can understand how a caregiver suffers, unless they've been in that role themselves.

Since I've been both the caregiver and the patient I'll be posting about some topics from both perspectives over the next few months. I hope to provide helpful information to demonstrate to caregivers and patients alike that both roles are stressful and difficult but there are lots of resources for both. Meantime, if you're a patient please remember that your caregivers are hurting too and sometimes they need an extra hug and a thank-you, just like you need some extra grace and love during this stressful time.

I welcome your input, suggestions and questions along the way. Do you have specific questions you'd like me to answer? Would you like to share your story as a caregiver or a patient as a guest on my blog? Email me at