PATIENT KNOWS BEST
When offering support to a person in need of care, remember this: It's not about you!
What's right when caring for one person could be totally wrong for another. The two breast cancer survivors here are perfect examples of that. And, as different as they are in some ways, they are quite similar in others.
Debbi Marshall of Pleasantville, New York, learned at 52 that she had breast cancer. She had no trouble rallying friends to help during her post-lumpectomy chemo treatments. Her problem actually stemmed from those who were offended by not being asked to be part of the team. "I'd sometimes fall asleep during treatment because they gave me a lot of anti-nausea stuff. The people with me brought magazines and we'd flip through them; if I fell asleep, they just let me. It was comfortable. I didn't want someone I felt I had to entertain."
Yet, not everyone understood Debbi's position. "Somebody found out she wasn't on the chemo schedule. She called me and made it into her issue. She said, ‘Why didn't you ask me to go with you?' I was shocked. You don't want to have to deal with that. Is it a popularity contest of whom I choose to go with me? I had to arrange for her take me for a Neulasta shot...to make nice-nice. I shouldn't have had to do that."
Julie Marks*, who lives in Florida, also had caregiver issues. At 41, she was told she had breast cancer. Her doctor started to explain her diagnosis while she still was in a post-biopsy anesthesia fog, so he went to the waiting room to pass the information on to Julie's friend. "[My friend] completely freaked out," Julie says. "Later, on our way to my apartment, she was like having a nervous breakdown just being with me, and it was making me nuts. From then on, because of her reaction, I had to assure everybody that it was okay, that this wasn't a tragedy, that this wasn't something you couldn't talk about."
But sometimes not talking about it is actually best. "About a week later, I had a date with another friend," Julie explains. "This person was very nice but flaky. When I went to her apartment, she felt she had to ask me about [my cancer]. She asked me questions sweetly and seemed interested...for about five minutes. Then, she said, ‘C'mon, let's go out to dinner and have fun.' And she talked about herself for the rest of the night. It was such a relief to be with somebody who wasn't afraid of my dying, who was so involved in her own life. That was a wonderful little vacation."
Debbi feels pretty much the same. "I didn't care for phone calls from people you haven't heard from in a year. I would have preferred they send an email or a note." But, Debbi adds, if you're going to send an email or note, think about the person to whom you're sending it. "I loved the humorous emails better than the we're-praying-for-you emails. I deleted those. Send me funny emails and talk to me about what's going on in your life. Treat me the same way you treated me yesterday."
And if you're going to give a gift, think about who's getting it. Julie, for instance, is open to alternative treatment and was intrigued when a doctor turned her on to books about non-traditional approaches. Debbi's just the opposite. Yet, knowing that, even close relatives would send her yoga CDs, lavender-scented pillows and the like. "To this day," Debbi says, "if I smell lavender, I get nauseous. I associate it with chemo."
What Julie and Debbi agree on is the benefit of intuitive thought. "The people who were close to me knew when my bad days would be. They'd show up to drop something off or help—or call to ask me how I am," Debbi notes. And, adds Julie, who lived with her folks while she received treatment, "[my parents'] neighbor had had breast cancer, and when I first arrived she came over and told me what was going to happen and recommended doctors. I'd never met this woman before, but she gave me a gift and she said, ‘Anything you need, you can just ask me and I'll help.' She didn't know me, but she cared."
So, whether you're helping someone with breast cancer or another illness, think specifically about the person who needs care. That will make all the difference.
*Real identity withheld on request.