Sunday, 5 October 2014

56. What you can do for a cancer patient

Following on from yesterday's What can you say post, here are my What can you do reflections. I wouldn't have known all this six months ago, so I suspect that most of you are also at a bit of a loss. 

How to help your friend with cancer?

"If there is anything I can do... You only have to ask."

I have lost count of the many people who have said this. It is very kind and I appreciate it, I really do. But here is the problem.

1) It's actually quite hard to ask, unless you are family or a close friend, and we are in the business of helping each other out regardless of whether or not we are ill.  Particularly if, like me, you are a do-er and a coper, not used to asking for help. It wouldn't occur to me to ring someone who doesn't usually come around, asking Excuse me but could you just come and mow my lawn?

2) I don't know whether you really mean it, or whether If there's anything I can do was a platitude, uttered because you didn't know what else to say.

3) I just don't have the energy to ask. What if I did need my lawn mowing? (Which, by the way, I do. Please form an orderly queue.) The thought of having to email around with a list of things that might help, and then to deal with organising who does what and when, is just not worth it.

4) I don't actually know what would help. Not until someone does something unexpectedly helpful that makes me think, Wow, that is great.

So perhaps it would be easier if you said, If you need any help, here is what I could do: Mow your lawn / do your ironing / put some home cooked meals in your freezer / drive you to hospital / have your children.

Most of the time, we won't need any of that. So don't be offended if your friend with cancer doesn't ever take you up on your kind offers. Perhaps you could just very occasionally remind her that you are still around and willing, without being insistent (if your friend is anything like me, she might just accept your offer, not because she needs it, but because she thinks it will make you feel better, or she doesn't want to offend).

So, what has helped me?

First of all, anybody getting in touch. See yesterday's post. Cards, texts, emails etc. And yes, even the vague If there is anything I can do offers that never went any further. I know how helpless people feel and I appreciate their attempt.

Unexpected people have come out of the woodwork. Like the school parents who, without being asked, dropped off a couple of lunches in freezer bags. It's moved me to tears.

My spirits have been lifted by small and thoughtful gestures. Little gifts that I didn't realise I wanted, but hit the spot exactly. One friend sent me a set of Jane Austen DVDs just after I had surgery. I am not one for watching films or television, but lying on the sofa watching a dripping Mr Darcy emerge from the lake was just perfect.

My cello teacher (sadly redundant, as I haven't been able to play since April) has dropped the occasional audio cd (cello music, of course) through the letterbox, and once, a collection of very amusing columns. It was the first thing I was able to read, because the stories were so short. I was moved, not just by these little gifts, but also by the fact that she didn't ring the door bell (though I wouldn't have minded if she did). It felt like the equivalent of PS, no need to respond.

I have received some lovely things in the post. A scarf, a hat, a bag with an owl on it.

It's not these gifts in themselves that cheer me up so much. It's the fact that someone has taken the trouble to find it for me, wrap it up and put it in the post. There I am, perhaps feeling tired and miserable. Finding a little package on the door mat. Can't put that into words.

What else? Once, a friend who is a brilliant professional violinist came to play me some Bach (my favourite composer). Perfect. I was too tired to keep a conversation going, but lying on the sofa listening to some beautifully played soul music was wonderful.

It's been good to be able to ask a friend to come to hospital appointments with me, relieving the demands on my husband. He is not a fan of needles. I need him there when we see the consultant to talk through test results and treatment plans, but when it comes to scans and wigs and the fourth round of chemo, a friend will do nicely.

Some of the lovely things that have come through my letterbox...

What I have learned is that many, many people genuinely want to help.

It is not always easy for helpers like me (and my husband) to accept help from others. But I have learned that there is grace and beauty in accepting help, as much as there is in helping. It brings out the beauty in others.

And my friends, let me tell you: You are beautiful.

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