Showing Up During Cancer

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Being there for someone who is in need does more than you think.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, Rachel Martin

When you have cancer or are going through any kind of serious trauma, you need people to show up. Because when you’re scared for your life, laying flat on your back because you’re too sick to move, or facing traumatic loss, someone making a simple gesture can help get you through a very dark time.

Several years ago, I had a pretty close friend whose husband was suddenly killed in a terrible accident. The news traveled quickly around my town and I called one of our mutual friends to talk about what to do to be helpful.

At first, we were both stymied. Normal friendship protocols tell you that you don’t just show up at someone’s house, unannounced. But after a few minutes of discussion, we collectively decided we just needed to go see her. We didn’t call first. We didn’t ask. We just showed up. And we were a welcome site for the entire family.

We hugged them. We listened. I remember replacing the water in their dog’s water bowl. We stayed for a few hours and when the time was right, we left their house. But we and many others stayed close by for weeks to help the family in any way we could.

Cancer survivors and patients are often surprised at who does and who doesn’t show up during their time of crisis. Sometimes those you think you can count on run away. And sometimes it’s people you hardly know who ask the right questions, do the right kind of listening, or bring you your favorite chocolate bar. Everyone has different abilities and strengths during times of crisis. It can be really hard when your illness reminds them of something they’ve been through themselves. This PTSD-like response can prevent people who care from showing up the way you need them to. It takes a lot of strength to show grace to those who just can’t be present. But perhaps we can find that grace by channeling all the goodness that comes from those who are able to be there.

Showing up is demonstrated in many ways. People send flowers. They organize a meal train. They comment on your social media posts. They send a text. But knowing when and how people want you to show up and when they want to be left alone can be confusing. It’s important to take the cues. Balance your outreach. Sometimes patients just want to be left alone. When these times for solitude arrive, know that patients and survivors hold onto the love you’ve already shown us. It’s when we’re at our lowest that these gestures help us hang on.

During my chemotherapy, I received incredible gifts of love from many people in my life:

  • Family tree bracelet from a co-worker
  • Sisterhood pillow and a mindfulness card set from my childhood friend
  • Homeopathic nausea medicine and essential oils from my childhood friend
  • Trinkets from my hometown from my childhood friends
  • Prayers and rosaries from my boss
  • T-shirt from my HS BFF
  • Blanket from my cousin

Every single one of these items I still use today. They remind me of both my pain and my support system that remains intact. They remind me who I can count on. Then, now, and anytime in the future.

I’ve been showing up for many people these past few months. Mostly new friends who have been recently diagnosed with cancer. And as they head down the path I have been on, I want to be there for them in ways that work for them. I try to recognize boundaries, but continuously demonstrate my commitment to being available. Because showing up and staying around are the most important things someone can do.

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