There is No Shame in Asking for Help Amid Our Cancer Journey


I’ve always struggled to ask people for help, but after being diagnosed with cancer, I’ve realized that this is a skill I’d need to work on.

I’m not sure about anyone else, but I choke on four simple words, “Can you help me?”

For some reason, these words get stuck in my throat. Perhaps it’s my pride that stops me from saying them. Or maybe I’m bullheaded and still think I can do the things I did pre-cancer. I don’t know, but I do know I need to learn to ask for help more often.

Now 10 years into a battle with pancreatic cancer when I didn’t think I would see two, I find myself ever more dependent on the kindness of others including strangers. Suffering from osteo in my back as a result of 30 lethal doses of radiation, I can’t lift anything— I do mean anything.

Yes, I cheat on occasion, but I am super careful not to put any downward pressure on my back lest I suffer yet another compressed vertebra. For those who have had one of these and experienced the six to eight weeks of horrendous pain that follows, it makes one think a dozen times before lifting anything.

For me, admitting I need help has been a struggle. Being a man, I don’t like to admit any sign of weakness whatsoever. It's in my DNA. I suppose this comes from millennia of fighting for our very survival and to protect our families. We learned showing weakness to a foe is a worse-than-worse idea. Nonetheless, we cancer survivors, both menand women, are forced to ask for assistance whether we like it or not.

Over the last couple of years, we have had a small leak in our kitchen skylight which resulted in significant ceiling damage. Being handy, I considered replacing it myself, but I determined it would be ill-advised for me to get up on the roof ... not to mention lifting the skylight. I talked to a couple of roofing contractors, but they wanted to sell me a new roof for tens of thousands of dollars rather than replace the skylight. I contacted a good friend, Jeremy, who used to work in construction, to ask if he knew someone who might be interested in the work. Hearing my plight, he came over and replaced the skylight. Why had I been so afraid to ask him?

Despite my reluctance to ask for assistance, dozens of strangers stepped in when I least expected it to help me. Anything from giving me a hand loading my car at Home Depot or the supermarket to offering a few kind words to me I didn’t expect or deserve. During the pitch of my cancer treatments, without being asked, during the summer neighbors came over and mowed our rather large lawn, and then during winter cleared the snow from our driveway. Today, I try to repay their kindness by assisting others who need a hand.

Many people shrink back from assisting us because they don’t want to get in our space. As such it is often up to us to ask. I’ve found most people are eager to help us in any way they can. They just want to be asked. So, for heaven’s sake, ASK.

One of the reasons I think we don’t ask is we don’t want to put someone out. Or worse we’re afraid, they will say no. From my experience when I’ve asked for assistance, people jump in and do what they can.

Of course, we need a little common sense here. Asking for help when it is something we can do on our own with little effort is never a good idea. This could result in a situation when a “real” need arises others might decline to jump in. But being most of us are hard-pressed to ask for any help, there is little chance of running the wheels off our “can-you-help-me-please” wagon.

Another reason I think we, including me, fail to ask others for assistance comes down to dumb pride. It is humbling to need help. Even more so to ask for it. Even today, I will go to great lengths to figure out how to do something on my own. But slowly, I’m coming around to the notion that by doing this I am robbing others of the good feeling they get from helping.

A few weeks ago, we woke up to a day of snow and more snow. A national weather alert said it would dump more than a foot by evening. Looking out my window I watched it pile up. More than I could tackle, I wondered what I would do. Without being asked, my neighbor Kenny brought his snowblower over and blew out most of our large drive. I got out the next day and finished it up. Of course, I also went over and gushed how much I appreciated his clearing our snow.

Set aside your pride or whatever it is that is stopping you and say, “Can you help me?” Whether you want to or not.

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Dr. Karyn A. Goodman