Tracy learning to lean on dear friends during chemotherapy. Aug 2016.
When I was sick with incurable cancer, the hardest part of healing was learning to lean on others. Suddenly, the skill that got me into and through college, helped me create a life in New York City and build a successful career — fierce independence — was useless in my cancer journey. Good-natured people wanted to help but didn’t know how, nor did I know what to ask for.
I had ‘done it all’ for so long; I had to learn how to accept help. I had to lose the guilty feeling that I was a burden. And most importantly, I had to surrender my pride and accept that getting help didn’t mean I was weak, it meant I was focused on getting well.
I found four key areas I struggled with and have since counseled other cancer thrivers about: family, friends, career, and financial matters.
At first I expected my husband and son to step up and wash the dishes, buy the groceries, clean up after themselves. “Couldn’t they see I needed help?” I thought exasperatedly. But because I had done it all in my control freak way for so long, they actually didn’t see it. I had to learn to ask for specific things I needed: “Honey, can you wash the dishes so I can take a nap?”, “I need your help to pick up all your dirty clothes because Mommy’s not 100% today,” “Can you get the kid out of the house tomorrow for a father/son adventure so I can sleep off the chemotherapy side-effects?” My learning to ask for help, helped them feel like they had something to do to contribute to my healing. It gave them some direction. We grew as a family and became Team MOM.
As I tried to pretend everything was ‘normal’, wiser friends wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. One friend took over my kitchen, refused to let me help, and yelled at me to ‘sit’ so many times when I tried that I felt like a dog. A group of school moms stepped in to start a meal train so I didn’t have to cook for months. When I couldn’t figure out how to get to chemotherapy treatments at sunrise, generous moms made themselves available to welcome my son at 6 am, before even their kids were awake. And other friends picked my son up at school, got his homework done, fed him and made it all a play date while I was coming home after an exhausting 15-hour chemo treatment. These caring friends out-stubborned me when I protested, to lift the burden of everyday living so that I could focus on healing. I learned to simply and graciously accept their help and soon saw how much I needed it.
Like many of us with cancer, I had a successful career and didn’t have time for cancer on my daily agenda. In the beginning I tried to just fit ‘healing incurable cancer’ into my long to-do list. I even hosted conference calls while in the chemotherapy infusion center. An IV in one arm, phone in the other and a laptop on the tray table. Eventually, I had to accept that I couldn’t ‘do it all’ anymore. I had to be honest with my team, co-workers and boss to see what I could hand off and how to make accommodations for my doctors visits and chemo treatments. I ended up working from home and taking a medical leave. It was hard to step back after 20 years of go-go ambition, but I wouldn’t be much use to the job if I didn’t survive.
Few of us want to admit that we need money or that the bills are more than we can bear. When friends started a GoFundMe for me because they knew, without me telling them, how much the medical bills were piling up, I didn’t want to accept it. It seemed too much to ask for people to give me money. It was my illness, therefore the financial burden was mine to bear. It took a stern talking-to from a good friend to explain to me that people wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do. Giving money gave them a way to help and feel like they were part of my journey. That fund became essential for me getting my treatment. If people are asking to help financially, we need to swallow our pride and graciously accept their help – for both them and us.
When we learn to lean it to receiving and asking for help during cancer, we grow as people and allow others into our journey. It may be counter-intuitive to what we’ve always known; especially for other independent type-A’s like me. But let’s face it, if we’re in the middle of a cancer battle, clearly something needs to change. So think of one thing you need help with today and go ask for it.
FOR EVERYONE ELSE
For anyone reading this who is a caregiver, friend or co-worker to someone in a cancer journey, please understand that we’re not shunning your efforts, nor should you take it personally. We are being stripped of our identity and our world as we knew it just blew up. Cancer can be so overwhelming that we don’t even know where where to start. Offer specific ways to help rather than the vague, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” We can grasp concrete practical things: Can I bring you dinner tonight? Do you need a drive to the doctor? Can I babysit? Can I help you clean the house/take out the garbage? What do you need done today that I can do, so you can take a nap?
By Tracy White