Cancer Support system? What support system?


No man is an island, but sometimes our interdependency isn’t clear.

I think the most important piece of advice I would give to someone facing any kind of cancer treatment is to figure out their support system. If they don’t already have one, they should build it so it’s in place when it’s needed. And when it’s needed, they should use it.

Now, I am an independent woman. I wasn’t raised to be independent, but life sometimes turns out different than your plans. I was supposed to marry a nice guy and live happily ever after, with him worrying about mundane things like bills, leaky faucets, retirement planning and whether or not the car needs new tires. It wasn’t easy, but over the years I have learned to juggle my finances, car repairs and everything else that has come my way. Whatever the situation, I rarely would ask for help but would hunker down, figure out what had to be done and do it. In some ways, I felt that asking for help was a sign of weakness. Getting help seemed to impinge upon my independence.

But what happens when you just can’t do it? What’s the fallout when you physically aren’t up to anything? And how do you learn to accept help when it’s offered if you are so focused on being able to cope, even when you know you are coping badly?

When I was diagnosed with cancer I thought I had friends. After all, there were a lot of people that I was friendly with. But as I moved from diagnosis to surgery to chemo and radiation, I found the circle of friends grew small, then almost non-existent. Initially, everyone offered good thoughts and wishes, but I soon stopped hearing from them. In fairness, I pretty much dropped out of my social life since I didn’t have the energy to be a social butterfly. I managed to go to work (some days) and medical appointments with an occasional side trip to the store for supplies, but that was it. And I realize that cancer is not easy for people to deal with. Everyone is busy with their lives. They don’t know what to say or do, nor do they know what not to say or do. And some of them are nervous or scared because my cancer reminded them of their own lack of immortality.

At the time of my treatment I was also a caregiver. My elderly mother had stage 4 lung cancer as well as dementia. Again, I was used to being independent and had fought hard with myself over the years to become independent, ever capable of dealing with anything and everything. Not only did I not know how to ask for help, but the very idea of asking for help was anathema to me. I struggled along, coping badly, waiting for what surely was a nightmare to end, and wanting to spend the time until it did end in bed with the covers pulled up over my head. I didn’t know how to accept help when it was offered. One of the first times I realized I couldn’t do it all myself was when my mother offered to fix me something to eat. She was no longer allowed to use the stove (there had been an incident involving cooking in Tupperware and another incident involving flames) but I let her fix something for me that didn’t require heat. After that, I slowly figured it out through trial and error. It took a while as I learned to pause for a moment when someone offers help, smile and accept the help being offered. Sometimes I don’t need the help offered but I accept it anyway partially to keep myself in practice and partially so they will be encouraged tomorrow to offer assistance to someone else who needs it more than I.

The moral to this story is: Don’t be like me. Have a support system up and running ahead of time and then utilize it. Keep a list, mental or written, of big things and little things that you could use some help with so you are ready when the occasion arises. When someone offers to help you, whether it’s your sister doing the laundry or a perfect stranger putting your groceries into the car, simply say, “Yes, thank you” and let them do it. After you accept help a few times, it gets easier. And if you need help, ask someone to help you. That also gets easier the more you do it. People like to be helpful. Think about it. The last time you helped someone, whether or not you initiated it, you felt good about doing so. Let others feel good about it too.

No man or woman is an island.

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