order of bald eagleThe end of the year is always a time for reflection, for looking back at what happened, remembering the best bits, observing how you got through the worst, but especially so this year. Ten weeks on from my surgery I feel like I’ve come back to myself, and I can draw breath, lift my head up from the tension of recovery and take stock.

Cancer doesn’t just happen to the person who discovers it’s in their body; it happens to their family and friends, more intensely the closer to the person they are. I think it’s hard for those around us to know how to help or what to do particularly when they are coping with their own pain at what’s happening, and so I wanted to write about how people have supported me, to honour what they have done and in case it’s helpful to anyone else.

There is no hierarchy in the list that follows; sometimes the smallest things had an enormous impact. There is no guarantee that something you do for someone with cancer will have the effect you hoped; there were times when I felt so rubbish that I couldn’t summon the energy to look enthusiastic or even text a thank you. But I had to trust that what was offered was done in a true spirit of generosity, not done to meet the needs of the giver. A true gift doesn’t ask for anything in return. Someone wisely said to me ‘people aren’t helping you, unless you think they’re helping.’ There were times, particularly after surgery, when people wanted to visit and I turned them down because I needed to hide away and get better. My people-pleasing tendencies have had to be overshadowed by self-preservation which is no bad thing.

I found writing on my blog a very positive thing. It helped me process what was going on and it also meant people knew the basics of what was happening; I didn’t have to keep updating people with how my treatment was going. I found I didn’t mind talking about it when people asked me how I was, although it was also a relief to get caught up in other things and for cancer to recede into the background. But not everyone chooses to go public with their diagnosis; not everyone can because of the impact it might have on their work; not everyone wants to talk about it.

As I’ve said before there is no blueprint for how to cope with cancer. What I found helpful might not suit your friend who has just heard she’s got cancer; we need to work these things out for ourselves, but hopefully because you know her, you will also know how to show her that you’re with her in what she’s facing. And sometimes there’s nothing anyone can do to help, but it’s still important to be there. Because of regular periods of chemobrain and the intensity of surgery, I may have forgotten some of the things people did for me, so if your contribution is not on this list, please don’t take it personally. So after all those caveats, this is what helped me:

  • People have sent me a constant supply of cards and flowers from the time I was diagnosed, to after my operation. I was really touched to know that people hadn’t forgotten what I was going through, even though it was going on for months. A few people sent me cards regularly, so even though I haven’t seen them in person I know they’ve been with me through all that’s happened.
  • Contact with people through social media has been brilliant. So many people have read my blog, and interacted there or on Facebook or Twitter. Every ‘like’, retweet, or comment, every text or email has given me a very real sense that people are in this with me. When I was first diagnosed, I felt I had been transported into a strange land where I didn’t know my way around and I didn’t know the rules. People getting in touch felt like they were choosing to enter this new space with me.
  • Friends remembered my change of diet which meant a lot. Lots of people sent me dark chocolate or vegan snacks. My in-laws bought me a Nutribullet which has been used almost every day since. A couple of people bought me recipe books, and one friend sent me some family recipes. One friend cooked me a vegan supper and brought it round. I didn’t feel like socialising much, but some lovely friends invited us round regularly and didn’t mind if I fell asleep on the sofa or had nothing much to say. Food is probably an area that particularly needs to be tailored to an individual’s preference. Jonny is a fantastic cook so we didn’t particularly need other people to provide meals, although it was lovely when they did. My appetite wasn’t affected much by chemo, although I had to avoid chillies for a while, whereas some people find it hard to eat.
  • A friend went through treatment for infertility a few years ago. She was given a tin of gifts from another friend, entitled a ‘Human Repair Kit’. She passed the tin onto me full of gifts like homemade hand scrub, dark chocolate and lavender from her garden along with a card from her daughter. I loved the idea that the love she’d been shown in her darkest time was now being passed onto me.
  • Friends bought me gifts that I could do on my less active days, knowing that I would need help to fill them – books to read, knitting, colouring, Sudoku puzzles.
  • A friend had her hair cut in solidarity with my baldness, donating it to the Little Princess Trust to be made into a wig for children with cancer, and raising money in the process.
  • A friend raises money for breast cancer charities regularly since her sister died from it; this year she nominated my name for a fundraising wall at the Institute of Cancer Research and invited me to see it unveiled.
  • A friend in my running club is known as Bald Eagle. He sent me a framed certificate admitting me as a temporary member of the Order of the Bald Eagle ‘in acknowledgement of my regular training runs to Charing Cross Hospital in 2015’.
  • Friends went running and took me with them in spirit, and then let me know. Far from making me resentful that I couldn’t run, I loved the fact that they were thinking of me and knew how much I missed being able to run. And then there was my wonderful gang of people who ran with me to chemo, and members of my family who walked on my final treatment day.
  • Early on a friend sent me this message: ‘Once upon a time, I went on a retreat in a monastery. I was excessively tired, and not very well. I remember thinking to myself, “Why did I come on retreat? Now I will have to pray, and I really can’t be bothered.” The monk who met me at the door and showed me to my room told me all about the routine, the meals, the chapel services etc. And then he said., ” By the way, don’t feel you have to pray all day long. I sense that you are here because you need others to pray for you. We are praying for you, so you should just rest.” Maybe with your friends praying for you all around, you can just rest too, when you don’t feel like praying?’ I haven’t really known how to pray for myself, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who I have discovered have been praying for me, many of whom I have never met. I haven’t written publically about how my faith has been impacted by cancer because that’s still very much a work in progress, but this message gave me permission to just rest and receive and I was very grateful for it.
  • My lovely sisters each responded in their own way – one came with me when I told my mum I had cancer, turned some old race tshirts into cushions and took some dresses in so they fit; one took up running so she could accompany me to chemo, and got her church praying for me; one wrote me proper letters and sent me gifts. My mum came to stay for a couple of days after most of my chemo treatments and was such a comforting presence, whatever I felt like doing. My relationships with all of them have been strengthened through this.
  • A friend bought me a long-sleeved t-shirt after my operation, so that I would have something soft to wear against my skin. I could only wear a very few of my clothes straight after the op and had no energy to go shopping, so this meant a lot.
  • My sister sent me a headband just as I was starting chemo which I wore most of the time during the summer. And a couple of weeks ago a friend sent me a woolly hat to wear which is just right for this weather; even though I do have some hair now, it’s not enough to keep my head warm.
  • My nose ran a lot when I lost my hair and I never remembered to take tissues with me, so was constantly sniffing. One friend had tissues for me every time I saw her and offered them without comment. Little things like a clean tissue on a cold day make such a difference.

So thank you to everyone who has been there for me in all these different ways over the last few months, and all those I’ve forgotten. You’ve made all the difference and I don’t know what I would have done without you.

Added later:
I knew I would forget some things, and wonder how I managed to forget these:

  • I had to do the last two modules of my MSc while I was having chemotherapy. The university were very accommodating and gave me extra help for the exam and the essay I had to do. But the women in my Action Learning Set went above and beyond, organising a Skype revision session where everyone shared their reading and asked each other questions, sending me copies of papers they had found helpful, encouraging me that I could do it. I did do it, but only because they were there for me.
  • A friend who I didn’t see at all last year but who follows me on Strava gave me a ‘thumbs up’ on almost every run or cycle that I did throughout the year. It was like the silent nod that you give another runner when you go past them, a moment of recognition and a reminder that he’d seen me.

2 thoughts on “How to help

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