Ruth Terracini (Violet guide Rose Dillon’s sister) was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at the age of 39. Despite various treatments from both eastern and western medicine, Ruth died in 2015 at the age 41.
She had a wonderful community of people around her who loved her dearly but despite that, like many people, she found it hard to ask for help. She thought by writing this piece she might give people some ideas about how to take the initiative and reach out to those around them when they know they need support.
Since hearing my diagnosis in 2012, my experience with cancer has felt more like a marathon than a sprint. Although, amazingly, I have looked well for the last 18 months, in reality my body is not. I am exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually from constantly dealing with the relentlessness of cancer, its treatments and the ripple effect.
“If you need anything, just ask.” When I was healthy these are words I would say to friends and family who were experiencing illness or challenging circumstances. Sometimes, I couldn’t even get the words out due to momentary paralysis upon hearing their plight - what could I possibly do that would ever be helpful to them?
It is hard to ask for help. It takes energy to ask for help. It takes courage and minimal inhibitions to answer honestly and say how someone may truly be best able to help you.
Imagine a friend says, “if you need anything, just ask”, and you reply “well, our front lawn is knee high and my husband is exhausted from continually taking me to the emergency department, worrying, cooking and caring for me, so if you could pop over and mow our lawn that would be great!”
While I appreciate the statement, “if you need anything, just ask” is well intended, it is impossible (for me at least) to respond openly and honestly. I think it's fair to say that most people struggle to say what they truly need help with. It is much easier to be grateful for something that somebody did without having to be asked.
Things to try instead
If you are wondering what specific things you can do, let it be something, anything, that you yourself would like done or would find helpful if you were in a similar situation.
- Mow the lawn
- Make dinner
- Clean something around my house
- Invite them along to something fun or nice that you are doing
- Send a card of encouragement
- Share something out of your veggie garden
- Plant something in their veggie garden
- Send a text when you are doing your grocery shopping and ask if they need anything
- Find out when they have to go to the hospital for treatment, a blood test or a port flush, and offer to go with them or visit
- Visit their elderly parent(s) when they are too tired or sick to go to see them
- Take their dog for a walk
Here are some kindnesses that take little effort but that can be powerfully uplifting:
- Write a note to tell them why they matter
- Send an email or text every now and then just to say you are thinking of them… and don’t expect an immediate response
- Share a memory that you have of them that is special to you
- Talk to them like I they are a normal person, not a diagnosis or a problem to solve
- Do something for their caregiver
- Give them a hug and tell them that you love them
I have had family and friends make me meals, colleagues send flowers with kind thoughts, and a kind sister-in-law who cleaned my house every time I had chemo. An ex colleague who loves gardening spent a day in my front yard, trimming roses, attending to the veggie patch and making my garden happy. A friend of a friend even cleaned my oven while I was in hospital having major surgery! Another ex colleague, who I had not seen for at least 10 years, sent me a card containing lavender and heartfelt words of empathy. These thoughtful expressions of concern and love truly touched my heart and provided me with extra emotional resilience when I really needed it.
Some final advice
If you are thinking about how to help someone who is facing cancer or something challenging, my advice would be to:
- Remember the caregiver - they are bearing many burdens – working as well as caring, maintaining the housework and dealing with the incredible stress and worry of having a very ill partner. Much of what I have written is equally valid and would be equally appreciated by them too.
- Understand it is hard and energy sapping for the person to ask for specific help
- Try not to put the person who is unwell in a position of having to think of jobs for you to do or having to ask you for help
- Don’t wait to be asked! You are the only one who knows how much time and energy you have to spare
- Don’t do anything out of a sense of obligation. Do it out of love, or not at all. Be truly happy and willing to help
- Understand that cancer in particular can be an experience that is long and drawn out and that help, in its various forms, is needed just as much down the track as it is in the initial shock of the first few weeks after diagnosis
- Realise that although a cancer patient may actually look well, they are, in reality, dealing with all sorts of things you may not be aware of. These can include regular blood tests and scans (and the nerve racking to wait for results - scanxiety is a real thing), pain, fatigue, appointments with oncologists, bad news/good news (and what to tell people), medications (and their side effects), hospital visits, coming to terms with death, making difficult decisions and having difficult conversations
- Accept that doing something for someone does not have to be a grand gesture
- You don’t have to be a close friend or family member to reach out to someone you know has been handed a desperate diagnosis or a very challenging situation
Reflecting on the kindness I have received since diagnosis shows me there are so many good people in my life and the world. Knowing people care and acknowledge my situation has provided immense emotional support that has sustained me more than they could ever know.
Kindness often takes little effort but can be powerfully uplifting.