“What can I do to help you?” Most cancer survivors and patients undergoing treatment have heard this many times. Often the response is, “Don’t worry, we’re just fine.” The well-wisher wants to be supportive, and, left to her (or his) own devices, may decide to bring over food, send flowers, or do something else that is a lovely gesture and very supportive, but not quite as helpful as something else would be.
To make matters a bit more confusing, the offers to assist often come in a rush, just as the patient and his or her family is in crisis. Indeed, when someone is diagnosed with cancer, there may be an initial outpouring of support from loved ones, friends, and colleagues. At a time when the newly diagnosed person needs to make a lot of important decisions about his or her treatment, this may feel overwhelming. Later, the offers of support may drop off—just when the survivor could use them the most.
In my book What Helped Get Me Through, I included a chapter titled “What Would Have Helped but Was Too Hard to Ask For.” Survivors told me that they needed specific things, such as gas for their car or soccer uniforms for their children. They mentioned wanting help with unpleasant chores, such as cleaning their home (especially the bathroom) or shoveling snow.
One woman said, “Physically, I was just overwhelmed and tired and would have loved some help with cleaning and chores like laundry. One friend sent her kids to cut my grass and take out the garbage.”
Another survivor summed it up this way, “How can you ask someone to clean your house or to pay for some housecleaning help? People forget that life goes on as you lay on the bathroom floor or in bed dealing with the chemo drugs, and so on.”
My colleague at Harvard Medical School, Paula Rauch, MD, has a solution for this. She encourages survivors to appoint a loved one or a trusted friend to be the “Captain of Kindness.” This person is in charge of helping to organize the well-wishers. Here’s how the conversation may go:
Well-wisher: “Mary, I just heard that you are dealing with cancer. I’m so sorry! What can I do to help?”
Survivor: “Thank you so much for your support. John has offered to be my Captain of Kindness, and he has been organizing the support. If you e-mail him, he can tell you what will really help me. Thanks again for being such a wonderful friend!”
The e-mail exchange may look like this:
Well-wisher: “Dear John, I just heard that Mary has cancer. What can I do to help?”
John: “Dear well-wisher, thanks so much for your offer to ease Mary’s burden. Mary and I made a list of the things that would help her. As you can see from the list that I am sending you in this e-mail, there are several different things that would really support her.”
Well-wisher: “Dear John, I’d love to contribute $20 to the gas card to support Mary getting to her treatments.”
John: “Dear well-wisher, that is perfect and will really help Mary!”
Consider asking someone to be your Captain of Kindness (maybe you can just show someone this article, and she or he will offer to do this for you). Your Captain should be someone who really knows what you need (be sure to tell him or her, and be honest about what will really help) and is able to efficiently organize the well-wishers and gently direct them to supporting you with what you need most right now.
People really want to be supportive, but often they need to be told what will really help. It’s not always easy to figure out how best to support you and your loved ones.