I would never, ever wish the experience of being diagnosed with and treated for cancer on anyone, but one of the only things that has made it even remotely easier is the support Jeff and I have received from our friends and family. If anyone has to go through this experience, I can only hope that they receive the kind of love and support that we’ve gotten from them over the past few months.
Jeff and I are both close with our families, so we obviously had their support from the start. Both my mother-in-law and my parents visited me in the hospital and either Jeff or I have been on the phone or email with them and my sister nearly constantly since I’ve been diagnosed. Our extended family has also been amazing, between their cards, supportive phone calls and Facebook messages. We’ve always known that we are blessed to have a great family around us, and certainly this experience has solidified that.
Like many teenagers, Jeff and I both moved away from home for college, and we ended up placing roots in the state where we went to school. We love it here and have established great lives for ourselves. Because we live fairly far from our families, our friends really have become like a second family for us. After this experience, I would venture to say that many of our friends are now just straight up family, let alone a second family. You really do learn who you can lean on in the event of an emergency.
When I was admitted to the hospital, I was so fortunate to have friends come by to visit. Friends came from hours away or just down the road to spend time with me. Nothing could have brightened my room more! During that time, it was amazing to have friends come by to laugh with me while I was getting poked and prodded and even getting my first chemo treatment. Quite honestly, I think the visits were just as good for them as they were for me. Allowing people to come to my room let everyone see that I wasn’t some sort of meek and measly specimen laying in bed, unable to do even the most basic of things. I essentially looked the same and could do everything on my own – the only difference was that I became tired a bit more easily. Plus, I really enjoyed being able to talk about anything but cancer and to catch up on what was going on in the outside world.
Of course, many of our friends brought or sent things to us that were so helpful during a time that was stressful and difficult. Some items I really needed and other I just really appreciated after being in the hospital for several days?
1) Extra pairs of normal underwear. “Granny panties” takes on a whole new meaning when you see the underwear that the hospital will give you if you don’t have your own clean set – we’re talking cotton tent-like monstrosities. Huge (although comfy) things that are embarrassing to know you’re even wearing, although fortunately for me, no one really saw them.
2) Flowers brought and sent that were gorgeous and definitely brightened up my room. It’s commonly thought by many florists that cancer patients can’t have fresh flowers in their room due to the potential for bacterial infection. This is true for patients in the nadir for white blood cell counts, but I was able to have them since I hadn’t started my treatment until the very end of my stay.
3) My parents brought a huge care package of items – pajamas with a button up top (really helpful for patients with ports in their chests, like me), comfy pants and thermal tops, slippers, an electric waterproof razor (helpful to prevent cuts/infections), and a few other items.
4) One of my very good friends and my parents brought up hard candies (LifeSavers, losenges, etc.) to help with dry mouth and the horrible taste of chemo and small tubes of scented hand lotions and sanitizers.
5) Friends and family also sent us pre-made frozen food from Omaha Steaks. These gifts were amazing as they have lasted a long time and have definitely made things easier when Jeff or I are too flat out exhausted to cook. Unfortunately, chemo makes this happen more and more often now.
Of course, for some friends it was too difficult to get to the hospital so they called, Facebook messaged, texted or IMed me. These messages and calls were also greatly appreciated. It definitely helped to pass the time. There’s only so much day time TV you can watch in the hospital. I also felt in touch with the outside world and it was just good to know that I was in everyone’s thoughts.
A number of people have asked what they can do to help the cancer patients in their lives and I do have some suggestions.
1) Just DO, don’t ask. I am generally independent, and frankly, stubborn. I really don’t like admitting that I need help. If someone offers me help, even now that I’m well into treatment, I don’t often take them up on it just because I don’t like to feel like I’m a burden. However, so many people have wanted to help us out and I can tell you that the biggest relief has come from friends and family just jumping in and doing things for us. Even things like asking when friends can come to visit can feel overwhelming at times, so when I was in the hospital, the easiest visits to arrange were the ones when friends said, “Can I come up this evening?” and the instant I said, “yes” and couldn’t even get out the, “but you don’t need to visit me”, they were in the car and on their way.
If you want to help out by doing basic chores around the house or cooking something for you friend, just say, “I would like to come by to help out with housework (laundry, cooking, etc.). What time can I come by?” rather than, “Do you need help with housework?” or the even trickier and often ingrained phrase, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.” I will readily admit that I used this phrase all too often. It does sound good and we all have the best of intentions when we say this, but when you’re a patient, the last thing you want is to inconvenience anyone and you can’t help but feel like you’re a pain in the neck if you ask for help. It’s also just overwhelming sometimes to have to think of a way that someone can help and setting it all up. Believe me, any little thing you can think of to do to help will be much appreciated.
There are a number of things that can be done to alleviate this feeling for the patient. Someone in your life could keep track of what needs to be done and dole out responsibilities for those who can help, but probably the best thing I’ve heard about is the website called www.lotsahelpinghands.com. Using this site, a patient can sign up for things they might need help with on a schedule (say, picking up their kids from day care one day or a ride to chemo) and friends/family can sign up as caregivers and volunteer to help out with the tasks on the schedule. It removes the burden of asking for help from the patient and allows caregivers to sign up for the items that work with their schedules. It’s really an amazing idea. A co-worker of mine offered to set one of these up for me, and although I fortunately didn’t need too much help during chemo, I think it’s a great idea for busy families with cancer patients at any level.
2) Call, email, text or Facebook message just to say hello/check in. It’s so nice to be thought of and to have folks ask how you’re doing. So many friends from high school and other parts of my life have reached out to me since my cancer diagnosis via Facebook. Life has a tendency to get away from us over time, but things like cancer tend to draw everyone together again and I can’t say how nice it is to get a message of support from friends who I haven’t talked to in awhile. It is also a nice chance for us to catch up on non-cancer related things. Don’t be afraid to diverge the talk away from cancer once you get caught up with how your friend is doing. I know I greatly enjoy talking about anything but cancer sometimes so it is really nice to hear what’s going on in other people’s lives, too.
3) If you’d like to give a gift to the patient in your life, little things can mean a lot. Having little lotions, candles, books you’ve already read, and stuffed animals (like the adorable panda that Jeff bought for me) are really comforting and help to pass the time. Pictures to brighten up their hospital room or home are also wonderful. One of my really creative co-workers made posters with pictures of my students holding funny signs and made a scrapbook with really sweet messages from folks in my department. It’s so nice to flip through it every now and then to remind myself that I have a life to return to once this is all done. I also received some very generous gifts, like an iPad, that made my treatments so much more bearable but this was really going above and beyond. I’ve been reading a lot since I came home so an Amazon or iTunes gift card for books is a great idea as well.
All in all, we have been so fortunate to have the help and support of our friends and family. I really couldn’t be more grateful.