What Cancer Survivors Need

(But Don’t Always Ask For)

by Julie K. Silver, MD

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When I went through the diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer as a 38 year old mother of three young children, I was fortunate to have many offers of help from those who cared about me. People were so helpful, in fact, that I felt I couldn’t possibly ask them to do more than what they were already doing for my family and me. Even if I really needed help with something in particular, I kept my silence.

Part of my hesitation was that I didn’t want to burden anyone, and part of it was that I wanted to remain as independent as possible for the sake of my own self-esteem. When I began surveying hundreds of cancer survivors for my new book, What Helped Get Me Through: Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope, I asked them what would have helped them that they didn’t ask for. I found that the reaction I had during my cancer journey was not uncommon. On the other hand, many survivors reported that they would have accepted the help if someone had specifically offered. Indeed, they were usually happy to have their loads lightened, but they wouldn’t ask someone to do that for them.

I want to share some of the “secret” wishes that came up time and again from the survivors who filled out surveys. It is my hope that if you are going through a cancer experience, you will ask for the help that will really make a difference during this time. This isn’t easy. It’s difficult to have to rely on others to do what has always fallen under your domain, and equally hard to ask favors of those who you know already lead busy lives.

Many survivors reported that when people said “Let me know if I can help,” that was not nearly as useful as an explicit offer such as “I’ll be by on Saturday to mow your lawn.”

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Dr. Julie Silver

Perhaps friends and family members reading this will offer assistance to their loved ones without having to be asked and will see beneath the protests. Many survivors reported that when people said “Let me know if I can help,” that was not nearly as useful as an explicit offer such as “I’ll be by on Saturday to mow your lawn.” Mike, a management professional diagnosed with rectal cancer, said, “Our friends and family did not ask what they could do to help us. They simply did things, knowing full well we would not ask for anything. They brought meals, picked up our children for events and outings … It’s a good thing they were thinking for us; we sure weren’t. We were too focused on the prize of recovery.”

The daily chores that wear us all out become overwhelming when going through cancer treatment. Sally, who underwent treatment for breast cancer at age 39, noted, “I wish I had someone to clean my house, because I was too tired to do anything during radiation.” She added, “I would never ask someone to clean my house!” Indeed, most people seem to feel this way, but if someone specifically offered to help – cleaning the bathrooms, taking out the trash, and so on – by and large, the survivors reported that they would have really appreciated the help.

Cancer survivors often face a loss of income combined with an increase in expenses for things like gasoline to drive to radiation or chemotherapy. If you have the means to help someone financially, whether it’s buying them a gas card or providing soccer uniforms for the children or paying the mortgage, that may be the most helpful thing that you can do. If you don’t have the means, consider organizing a fund-raiser or asking fellow church or synagogue members or other community groups to pitch in.

Though many survivors do need financial help during this time, there are also simple things that make a big difference and don’t cost anything. Bill, a 62-year-old man who was diagnosed with prostate cancer, wrote, “What I desired most, for which I found it hard to ask, was physical contact with people. Just the mere contact of someone touching my arm, shaking a hand, giving me a hug, I found to be very comforting.”

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Dr. Julie Silver, a physiatrist, is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and on the medical staff at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA. She has authored over a dozen books, including her guidebook to recovery from cancer treatment, After Cancer Treatment: Heal Faster, Better, Stronger. Her book for the American Cancer Society, What Helped Get Me Through: Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope (October 2008), marked her fifth year of survivorship.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, 2008.