When a friend went through chemo several yars ago, I tried to be helpful. When I went through chemo myself, I apologized to her. I did not know, could not know, what it was like. So here’s a list for those of you who want to help, a selective and personal list based on what I experienced. It’s targeted to those helping women with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, but much of it applies to anyone dealing with chronic or recurrent illness.
And let me say up front, God bless you—it’s not an easy road you are trying to walk, and sometimes you will feel “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” I can speak only from my limited experience as a single, self-employed woman living alone with cats. Your challenges will be different, depending on your relationship to the woman experiencing this in her body and the kind of person she is. But here are some ideas I’ve learned from the world’s best caregivers.
• Make targeted, focused suggestions for help. “Do you need anything?” or “How can I help?” isn’t as effective as, “I’d like to bring you dinner one night this week. Which night would work for you and what sounds good right now?” Here are some gifts of help I’ve received or heard of others receiving:
• giving tickets to ballet, concert, theatre
• raking leaves or mowing lawns
• providing meals, especially those pre-packaged in individual serving sizes
• driving to appointments
• sitting in on conversations with health professionals to be another set of ears and eyes.
• offering to go with her to choose a wig
• shopping for groceries
• Assume she knows her own strength, or will learn it, and allow her to help, to drive, or do anything else she says she wants to do. Sometimes sick people feel (rightly or wrongly) demeaned because they feel reduced to an almost child-like state of dependency and helplessness. If your patient thinks she can drive, and you don’t, you might make the offer to drive her car on the way back from wherever you’re going if she’s tired then. But my experience has been that a sense of accomplishment, however tiny, is worth being tired. Also, sometimes we do misjudge and overdo and spend the next two days in bed. And sometimes we lie there grinning, sure it was worth it.
• If you’re bringing food, always check for preferences or food allergies. Mouth sores from chemo are common. Your best bet is always nursery food—I went through an extended mac and cheese, mashed potato phase. As my priest, Rebekah, says, “Comfort food should not be interesting.” Think of things that go down easily, such as sorbets and cheesecake. (She can take off the pounds later; they will likely come anyway because of the chemo steroids.) In a perfect world, you’d also consider nutritional value—will this food help her body mend and grow strong? Failing that, at least let it be attractive and tasty. Go easy on spices of all kinds—I developed a sensitivity to salt, which I normally love.
• Don’t hover. Of course you’re worried, upset, frantic, and grieving over your own situation and loss as well as hers. Perhaps it’s natural for you to micromanage, especially if you’ve always been the strong one anyway, but try not to take away whatever degree of independence she wants.
• Take her out in nature, even if she’s a city gal and it’s winter. One of my happiest post-surgery memories was the sunny winter day when a friend took me to the local deli, bought our lunch, and drove us to a state park, where we sat in the car all wrapped up, admiring bare sycamore branches and squirrels. We are meant to be connected to nature, and it has something to offer us in every season.
• I kept working, and would recommend it as a nice diversion from thinking about cancer and chemo, as well as allowing one to feel like a contributing member of society and to earn some money. Even a few hours of work a day, if it can be arranged, is helpful. It was comparatively easy for me, because I worked at home, but for some people, the contact with others and the sense of normal life is essential.
• Remember that her emotions and moods are likely to be all over the place. I could go from zero to a weepy mess in a time frame that would qualify me for the Indy 500. This emotionally labile state will be especially true if the surgery has kicked her into early menopause.
• Chemo is a total body experience that affects the mind. “Chemo-Brain” is not just a cute shorthand excuse, but a real problem. On chemo, you get a hall pass that lets you wander. For most people, the mind returns, though I’ve read of people who years later continue to mourn that they are no longer as sharp as they once were.
And remember, no one expects you to do it perfectly, if there is such a category. Give yourself some time off and be good to yourself, too. Chocolate probably would help.