How have people helped you through cancer?

Helpline Question of the Month

November is National Family Caregivers Month and Thanksgiving—and a good time to pay homage to the friends and relatives who helped us through dark hours.

Having cancer is hard, but being a caregiver can be hard too—and sometimes requires the ability to mind-read. As Barbara D, a longtime SHARE helpline volunteer, points out, "The most helpful caregivers are the ones who tell you exactly how they are willing to help. The least helpful are those who say, 'Call me if you need me.' "

But if you've never had breast or ovarian cancer, how do you know how to help someone who does? I polled the folks who work and volunteer at SHARE to find out what kinds of care they were most grateful for.

BEING THERE

Cancer is lonely. Diane, who schedules volunteers for the breast-cancer helpline, knows first-hand. She says, "The hardest thing for me was going for my first chemo treatment alone and hearing the nurse say, 'There is your chair …' "

So it isn't surprising that "escort" was the service women valued most. "Friends and co-workers took turns taking me to chemo," says Bernadette, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 68. "I had a wonderful support system."

Says Barbara B., who volunteers on the ovarian-cancer helpline: "My husband drove me to every single oncology appointment, every appointment with the surgeon, every CAT scan, every PET scan, every single CA-125 blood test—even to the hairdresser when I had my head shaved. I had four surgeries, and he either stayed on a cot next to me in the hospital during my recovery or in a medical-student residence across the street. I had three rounds of chemo, totaling 48 sessions, and he was there for every one."

OLD HANDS

Then there is the wisdom dispensed by women who have been there, done that. Marina had worked for 17 years as SHARE's program manager before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Talk about being in the right place at the right time!" Marina says. Nearly everyone else who worked or volunteered at SHARE had had cancer and knew what she was going through. One gave her a list of questions to ask her doctor. Others took turns accompanying her to her early appointments, often making detailed notes, typing them up, and emailing them to her so she'd have them to read over. "Very often you don't remember what you heard. That's why it is so important to have somebody with you," says Marina, whose husband, too, was by her side at the hospital, at doctors' appointments, during chemo. Although chemo and surgery are behind her now, she takes an aromatase inhibitor and finds herself turning to her co-workers yet again for advice on how to handle side effects. "I do not need to attend a support group—because the support group is all around me," she says.

Gladys, a development assistant at SHARE, had a similar experience. One of Gladys' co-workers, a fellow breast-cancer survivor, went with her for a needle biopsy, which confirmed a recurrence. "I was so grateful to have someone—a survivor—with me!" says Gladys.

GOING PLACES

"Angel drivers" is what Moira calls the people who transported her from her home in New Jersey to her chemotherapy in New York every week for four months. She credits them with "turning Tuesday from a fearsome day into my favorite day of the week."

DOING WHAT YOU DO BEST

Often caregivers are able to take a talent and turn it into a personal gift. For example, says Koryn, a volunteer on the breast-cancer helpline, "a friend and photographer offered me a professional makeup session and photo shoot to help me feel beautiful again. It was an amazing experience!"

PRACTICAL MATTERS

Beloved are those who intuit homely needs—and do the deeds. Barbara D welcomed offers of Sunday-morning grocery shopping when she was at home and cat care when her illness put her in the hospital. Whenever Jane was laid low by post-chemo malaise during her ovarian-cancer treatment, a friend brought over a new "quiet toy" for Jane's four-year-old son so he could play on her bed while she recuperated.

SOUL FOOD

People who put food on the table nourish not just the body but the spirit too. "A neighbor prepared meals and brought them for my family of four every day," says Kathy, who has survived breast and uterine cancer. "It was so thoughtful of her!" Barbara B's husband arranged for one of her favorite restaurants to deliver dinner to her in her hospital room. "I couldn't have felt more loved!" she says.

SHARE THE JOY

When there's something to celebrate, celebrate! "When I had my last checkup, and received good news, I said LET'S PARTY!" says Meryl, who's had breast cancer twice and endometrial cancer too.

BIG EARS

It's great when your friends and relatives have practical skills, inside knowledge, or a fat wallet, but all they really need is ears. "When people call the SHARE helpline and ask what they can do to help a friend with breast cancer, I always suggest that they provide a listening ear," says Kathy. The most important thing, our volunteers say, is just to show up.

In what ways have people helped you through cancer?


National Helpline:
844-ASK-SHARE