A cancer patient, particularly someone whose treatment includes both chemotherapy and radiation, may need a different kind of support than a friend or family member might expect. I am two months in to a year of treatment for aggressive Her2-positive breast cancer, and I have a toddler and two businesses to run. The struggle is real.
1. Avoid "Let me know what I can do to help."
Equivalent to "How are you?" when passing a co-worker, "Let me know" has no teeth. A better
offer is, "I'd like to do something for you, so give me a task." Both chemo and radiation sap the body of strength, and the last thing a patient wants to do is mop the kitchen, wash the car, go to the grocery store, or take charge of the carpool. Last week, a friend drove 30 minutes to bring a meal, and she brought her son with her. Our boys played while we caught up. As she was leaving, she said, "When's your next treatment? I'd like to do something." I responded, "Let's figure out something right now. Would you give us an afternoon just to come play with Samuel so I can rest?" Her response? "Great idea. I can even take him to the park or something. Send me some dates." Perfect.
2. Look for gaps.
One friend brings me a meal on the Monday after each chemo treatment. In fact, she brings me two or three and sticks them in my freezer. While she's here, she picks a task and just does it. A couple of weeks ago, she and another friend came together, served my family a meal, and cleaned the kitchen while we sat and ate. It was humbling, beautiful, and needed. One of my best buddies lives an hour away, but she meets us halfway once a month and takes Samuel for a day and night so that my husband and I can have some time to ourselves.
3. Avoid Making Comparisons
There are around 50 different chemotherapy drugs, each of which has its own special set of side effects. There are some, like Herceptin, which have almost no side effects. Adriamycin, aka the "Red Devil," has a long list. When listening to a cancer patient talk about chemo, keep in mind that she is undergoing a treatment regimen unlike any other; timing, dosage, and her body's response to the medications will not be the same as your sister's, your mother's, or yours. When I receive chemo infusions, there are four drugs, each of which is given separately for a specific amount of time. The day after, I get a shot of Neulasta, which forces my bone marrow to produce a particular type of white blood cell. It takes a few days for the side effects of these five medications to hit, but when they do, they pile on and include intense leg pain, mouth and esophogeal sores, acne cysts on my face and neck, insomnia, intense fatigue, diarrhea, and hair loss. I have about ten days of that and then start getting back to normal. Those ten days are HARD, especially with a young child. It's hard to walk, focus, and eat. Someone is with us around the clock. Then again, I know of several people who miss just one day of work and then are back on the job. Different cancer. Different meds. Different body.
4. Love the Caregiver
Because my husband has his own business and I'm having treatment during busy season, my mother bears the weight of running my household. I signed up on Meal Train so that she would have one less thing to worry about in the course of a day. Her friends text her every day, call to check in, and even give her breaks. I have three aunts, and all of them have come for short periods of time (3-4 days) just so that she can go home and sleep in her own bed.
5. Celebrate and Encourage Self Advocacy
It may seem selfish or demanding for a patient to be specific about what she needs, but it's absolutely necessary. She can set up her own meal schedule, ask people to come over, and take advantage of the fact that people want to help but don't know how. I have fantastic neighbors whom I can call and ask, "Can I send Samuel over for a couple of hours? I didn't sleep last night, and I have to lie down."