Let people help.
In response to what I wrote about my diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, that’s what the overriding advice has been. Moms and dads who had survived cancer, or who are dealing with it now, overwhelmingly advised me to take the meals, babysitting, or other assistance that friends and family offer.
It’s harder than it seems. My first dose of chemo was last week, and I took off that day and the day after. My husband took the time off, too, and did everything as I curled up in bed and alternately slept and watched terrible reality television. It felt indulgent and lazy to watch the non-problems of Nicole Richie (she might kinda need glasses!) while my husband wrangled an almost-walking toddler and a dog, suspicious that something is up.
Two neighbors told me they were bringing dinners over. I wanted to say, oh, no, no, we’re fine, we can handle it.
But I reminded myself of all the advice from people who’ve been there. My resistance to accepting and asking for help has been eroded by e-mail after e-mail telling me that’s what I have to do now. It was a more powerful, and difficult, idea than I had expected.
Becky Zunt, who lives outside of Cleveland, was 37 with an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old when she had ovarian cancer diagnosed in January 2011. She’s been through multiple surgeries and hospitalizations and is now in weekly chemotherapy. “If people offer help, take it,” she wrote me. “It was hard for us to accept so much because we are givers and it was hard to be receivers but I explained to our kids that it is okay to be on the receiving end and that once again we would be on the giving end.”
Ann Springer of Arlington was diagnosed with cancer nine years ago, when she was 36 and had a 3- and a 7-year-old. Springer — who’s healthy now — wrote about people who want to help: “Give them something specific to do if they don’t intuitively know. They’re floundering as to how to be kind and not be invasive but still help…so guide them. There is no magic way to learn to ask for help. You just have to do it.”
Jessica Heard of Severna Park wrote eloquently of accepting help for her husband’s sake. She’s 40, with a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old, and recently finished chemotherapy for breast cancer: “We let everyone who wanted to share their love – our walkways were shoveled, our pantry stocked, our dog walked, flowers planted, house cleaned, smoothies brought, even an extra pair of eyes and hands for an outing – it was glorious. Before I became really sick, I asked my husband’s friends to check in with him regularly. … I needed all of his strength during that time, I barely had the emotional energy to take care of myself and my kids. He needed someone who, once the kids went to bed — I was always in bed — would stop by and bring a six-pack of beer or go out for an hour and shoot some pool. I felt a tiny bit selfish but for eight months everyone’s world revolved around me and my family – I was a taker – this went completely against my nature but once I accepted it – it was incredibly comforting.”
Peggy Larson wrote from a different perspective — she hasn’t had cancer, but was in the core group of friends of a woman who did. And she, too, made me feel better about accepting help. She wrote:
“I know it sounds strange but it felt like an honor to drive my brave friend to her appointments and sit with her. She was letting me see her at her most vulnerable and she looked so beautiful and strong to me even though I know she felt otherwise.”
So fine. I’ll listen. I know it’s good advice, and for my family’s sake, I will heed these wise words. But the truth is: Just because I’m learning to accept help doesn’t mean I’ve learned to stop feeling guilty for doing so — especially when I actually feel caught up on sleep.
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