May I help you?
It’s a question we often hear – and perhaps recite – without a second thought, especially at this time of year when we try to focus on those in need. After all, what could be bad about offering help?
But oh, what a loaded question it can be. As innocuous as it seems, help is, after all, a four-letter word.
Consider the Beatles, for whom the word was a request. Or the novel, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, in which the word is a derogatory euphemism for people.
I never thought much about what constitutes help until my cancer diagnosis. And then I thought about it a lot, because people asked that question. And so I had to figure out if I needed help, and what that help might look like.
I can’t speak for others wrestling with a similar need for help – whether it’s because of a serious illness or even a joyous event like the birth of a child. And that’s the first thing to remember about help: it is a totally individual definition and its definition is as broad and varied as the people who ask for or offer it.
As I wrestled with the changes my diagnosis brought, here’s what I found most helpful:
- The phone call from my internist the evening after she gave me the biopsy results. She had pushed hard to get quick results (because making a patient wait 2 weeks for a confirmed diagnosis is just cruel), and was checking to see how I was doing. Her voice that night was a lifeline in the stormy sea I’d just been thrown into.
- The guidance of the surgeon and oncologist, who led my spouse and me through the steps to decide on treatment and paced that decision so we had time to figure out the right path. They explained not just the factual medical information (most critically that breast tumors can show up almost overnight between mammograms, so I could quit feeling guilty about missing one), but also the emotional and psychological impact on both of us.
- My spouse, who investigated the medical information, checking with colleagues for second and even third opinions. Although I try to educate myself and be self-sufficient, the brain fog created by the diagnosis kept me from being able to process what I needed to know to make good decisions. For those facing trouble, it is essential to have such support on the path, someone who can keep you moving through the necessary steps, who can check and double-check details, even down to reading dosages on the bag of chemo drugs when it’s hung at your side in the infusion center.
- The nurses in the infusion center, whose demeanor helped keep me on an even keel. They know the seriousness of such a diagnosis, and some wonderful tricks to alleviate side effects, but they don’t reflect sadness or despair when working among the patients. In fact, they regularly reinforced the idea that the situation was manageable.
- Capable and reliable household help, whether a sister, a friend, or even a hired college student. The critical point is that this help must be independent enough to manage the various duties – laundry, driving kids to events, even cleaning out roof gutters – without constant direction or oversight, but not so imposing as to make you feel like you’ve been sidelined from your own life. It is difficult to find that balance, but SO helpful when it’s there. And that includes those who volunteer to bring in food.
- The cards and notes from friends and relatives. Hokey as it may seem for the ones who send them, they are the tangible sign that I am loved and supported. I still keep my basket of cards on a table where I can see them as a reminder of this network of support. And the chains of 1000 colorful origami cranes have an honored place on the walls of our home.
- Conversations with others further down the road of the cancer journey, for they knew what was possible and served as beacons of hope. The yoga gang in particular continues to be a network of support, but I also recall the encounters with anonymous people I met randomly while out on errands, people who recognized the telltale headscarf and compassionately spoke to me.
- The opportunity to continue to be as productive as I could in my professional life. Though I decreased my workload, my supervisor, who had wrestled with cancer himself, encouraged me to continue working at a level that would keep me engaged so that I was still a person rather than a diagnosis.
And here’s what was NOT helpful:
- Hearing cancer referred to as “the big C,” which only perpetuates the fear that surrounds the diagnosis. Cancer is not Voldemort (He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named). Saying the word does not bring on the disease or make it worse.
- Being spoken to in a pathetic tone of voice (especially with the head cocked at a sympathetic angle). Concern is acceptable, compassion essential. Pity, however, has no place in the armamentarium of help.
- Being told stories about relatives or friends who had a dire prognosis or died of cancer. Or, on the other hand, being told superficially, “Oh, you’ll be fine!” Cancer is the word used for a wide range of illnesses related to cell dysfunction, with an equally wide range of symptoms and prognoses, and no one ever knows how the story will turn out. It’s essential to help the person maintain her spirits and energy, but neither unrealistic hope nor descriptions of worst-case scenarios is helpful.
A tangent to those stories is telling the person how YOU are feeling about the situation. Someone who is blindsided by a life-altering event does not have any spare energy to help you figure out how you feel about the illness. A good guideline to prevent such a scenario is to follow the Ring Theory of kvetching, described by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in their article in the Los Angeles Times. As they put it, “The first rule is comfort in, dump out.”
What is least helpful is any sort of help that is about your need to be helpful, rather than what the person really needs. This is not the time to prove to yourself or anyone else that you’re a good helper. If you’re someone who can offer help, be sure it’s the kind of help the person really needs, which is not necessarily the kind of help you might want to give. Help is a gift — and gift, too, is a four-letter word. Like any gift, it should be about the person receiving it, not the one giving it.
If you’re someone who really needs to help or wants to organize help for a friend, there are several websites that can help you help someone else. Lotsa Helping Hands is just one of them.
And now, to lighten the mood, the musical closing. Sing along if you like.