Let me start with this fact: We are lucky. We are so lucky. We are so very lucky.
Now, CrabbyCancerMan does not think he is lucky, because he is the one who got cancer. And as fundamental truth #1 of this blog, let me remind you that cancer sucks. But, crabby as I am, I know that it could be worse. He has me, I have him, we have our people. And we are blessed to have a lot of people. We have friends, family, and we’re active in our community, so we even have people helping us who really don’t know us that well at all.
In this new world we inhabit, we’ve met people who have no one to take care of them as they suffer through cancer. They have co-workers take them to appointments, and get the drugstore to deliver because they don’t have someone to go to the pharmacy for them. They are thrilled to talk with anyone who will listen about what they are going through, because they have a care-taking team of one.
So it feels a little snobby when I say that one of the things you learn pretty quick in Cancerville is that even though many people have offered to help, not all forms of help are created equal. Some are actually way more helpful than you would initially think it would be. Some are helpful, but require time and energy from us to make it really helpful, so actually, they’re only somewhat helpful (kind of like getting a puppy as a present – awesome, but requires walking). It was wonderful to have people who wanted to help us, but it was hard to set up boundaries in that help, and it was very, very hard to override the desire to be gracious with the desire to have things go the way they need to (see previous posts).
In this post, I’m going to talk about what was the most helpful (there were lots of other helpful things, but these were the ones that made the biggest day to day difference). I’ll save other categories for another time.
Unfortunately, some of the most helpful gestures have also been gestures that are straight cash-for-thing-or-service gestures:
For us (homeowners, no kids, one long-haired cat), the single most helpful gesture was the cleaning service that our congregation put together for us. Because one thing they don’t tell you about cancer – any cleaning you use to do, you will now feel like that is 1/3 of your waking hours (the other 2/3 being doctors appointment and things that go with doctors appointments). Depending on the course of treatment, there is vomiting, there is sweating, there may be evacuation issues. And all of those things tend to smell, so laundry really isn’t something you want to leave pile up. I don’t mind doing the laundry, but the third load per day, three days in a row, put me over the edge. So after spending so much time on laundry, things like mopping, sweeping and vacuuming – those tools just sit in the corner, taunting you about all of the time you used to have to not do those things before this whole mess started. The first day the cleaning person came, our house stopped smelling like cancer. The second time, we felt like we could really breathe. And by the third time, our home became our sanctuary again, and not just a place to wait between waiting rooms.
A second super helpful gift was gift certificates to the local wash ‘n’ fold, or similarly someone coming over to do the laundry. Truthfully, we preferred the former over the latter, especially if that person came to the house and took it over to the wash and fold for us. While the idea of friends helping us wash and fold the appalling amounts of laundry was very sweet, truthfully – there are only a few people who we really felt comfortable handling our unmentionables.
Friends put together some money for an iPad, and while CrabbyCancerMan isn’t generally an Apple kind of guy, that has proven to be a tremendously useful gadget – hours of entertainment in waiting rooms and infusion centers with games, movies, books, news, and a nice big handy screen. They really should have an organization that just gives iPads to cancer patients, or anyone who is going through regular treatments of this variety.
Many of our friends and family who live far away have wanted to know what they can do to help – here are a few ideas:
If you are long distance, you can help by sending get well cards. Not just the first week, but every week, or every other week, or even once a month. But sending them regularly and often is a little bright spot. We found that snarky was preferable over saccharine, and a handwritten note goes a long way. And of course, any made by young children are especially cute. Get well cards are better than phone calls or e-mails because he can read them when he has the energy, and not feel obligated to keep up his end of the conversation.
If you want to send something to the patient and have it be a physical thing, we found that CrabbyCancerMan was always happy to get pajamas. Since sweat has been an issue for him, those fancy sweat wicking ones have been really nice.
As a caregiver, I sincerely appreciate regular check in phone calls and e-mails, but only when they include the phrase, said sincerely “I’m just checking in, you don’t need to call/write me back.” Bonus points if they include something funny or thought-provoking that is not related to cancer (but keep the voice mails short because there are probably 18 messages on the voice mail from doctors offices and what not that will need to be saved for later). Another friend of ours whose husband was diagnosed with colon cancer, hereby dubbed Coach-ette, started calling three times a week, right from the very first week we dove down the rabbit hole, always calling with that message. I admit, at first I was intimidated. I thought “Why is she calling me so much?” I figured she knew something that I didn’t, which was true. And what she knew is that sometimes you need to not talk, and just know that people are out there. And when you do need talk, her calls were a reminder that the operators are standing by.
This list is by no means definitive, so if you have other things that you think of as perfect gifts, I’m all ears.