Monday, February 18, 2013

showing love - helping a friend through cancer

Rachelen is a very dear friend of mine and she blogs over at The Joy of Dirty Windows.  Rachelen has played a mentor role for me in the recent months and has spoken so much truth into my life.  I am forever grateful that she has chosen to invest in me during a very needy time of my life.  A few years ago Rachelen was a very strong support to her best friend, Helen, who was in a fight against cancer.  Here she shares the ways she helped her dear friend during that time.

            Doing for her was really all about me?

“I keep thinking that something major in my life is changing.”  “I am having a test to see if this reflux problem is something serious.”  “My doctor has referred me to an oncologist, just to rule out cancer.”  “She has ovarian cancer and will have surgery tomorrow.”  All through the months that these things were going on, she felt worse and was not herself.  This “she” was my best friend, Helen Lee.  Over the twelve years of our friendship, she had been the strong helper to me, listening, helping, and advising through many different circumstances-- some joys, some difficulties, but Helen was a rock on which I leaned heavily and she was a spiritual sharpening iron for me.  Now, with those few words, that rock was “crushed” and for the next twelve months, my goal was, to in any way possible, return the favor of being strong and helpful to her.

Sarah has asked me to share ways that I found to love Helen through her year of extremity as she lived with and died from that cancer that took my familiar sidekick from my side.  It is my privilege to try to share these things and my prayer is that another might be helped as a result of all that we learned together.

Helen was a very self-sufficient person and even before the beginning, as she endured the testing, talking about the tests and helping her by visiting and being “hands-on” was not what she preferred.  Her preference was to hunker down, alone (with her husband and children at her side).  I like to help, so this could be difficult for me.  At times, I would feel useless and the personal sin of self-pity would sneak in through that open door.  Quickly, I learned that I would have to be creative if I wanted to love my dear friend.

Our shared time was precious and in some ways sacred.  There are things that will remain between us, but I will share specific ways that I found to reach out and help through her fog of uncertainty, pain and sometimes despair that accompanied her day to day dependence on God’s mercy for Christians who suffer. 

The first important thing to remember is that every person will be different.  Some will be open and share their needs freely, and others will have needs and never ask, while others will open up to some and not to others.  The point is to be responsive and sensitive to any possibility and accept the “personality of help” that is desired.
Many times when a person faces a difficult time, a phrase that I and others say is “Let me know if there is anything that I can do.”  That is lovely, and I mean it when I say it, but through my experience with Helen, offering to do very specific things might be better.  Below are examples of some of these specific helps.

Food:  This is an obvious conduit to help.  I knew Helen’s family well, so I knew many of their favorites.  Over the year of her illness and even now, after her Home going, I  make those favorites, listen for the mention of things that they like and try to find the “best” recipe for that and make these for them, both randomly and for the special days of life.  Others would ask me what they could do to help and often my suggestion would be that Helen could handle the day to day food prep, but a nice dessert of muffins or some other “comfort food” was always a welcome sight.

Shopping:  It seems obvious during the days after surgery or when a person is bedridden to offer to shop or run errands or bring food, but after the initial news or months, the church meals and neighbor help sometimes wanes.    My routine was to always ask when I went grocery shopping or running errands what was on their list and did they want me to purchase those things.  When I knew that Helen was going to go shopping, I would ask if she wanted me to go with her and I would help her with the list and to the car, the unloading and putting away.

Talking: At first, a patient, or a caregiver, or sufferer may not be up to talking, sharing or expressing what he is going through.  If that is the case, you can still be involved, but not as you imagined.  Through that silent time, think creatively of ways to help and communicate love in different ways from talking.  I would email the things that I had read or studied in  Quiet Time, and shared the day to day experiences of life without asking any questions of her, in order to distract her, and honestly, to keep myself from going crazy with concern for her.  When she was able and wanted to talk, it was important to discern what to talk about.  Sometimes, she would want to discuss what the doctor, her family or she were saying and thinking, at other times, she simply needed happiness and joy or distraction; being sensitive to this is important; if you wonder what to talk about, ASK!

Cancer research:  Helen did ask me to research for her what to expect from the treatments, the illness, and how to handle what would come.  The hospitals to a fine job educating, but sometimes, as in Helen’s case, there was not time or energy to attend the information sessions and reading the literature was scary.  Having very little to do, and yearning to do anything, I jumped into the project willingly and created documents, provided links for purchasing things, and along the way, this provided me with ideas to offer through the fallout of the illness.  It is important to remember that my job was to provide information, not to push ideas.  Balance and sensitivity in this process is important.  Very soon into this process, Helen affectionately named me her “Cancer Doula”.  Not only did this end up to be helpful for my friend, but it gave me much needed information for me as well.

Reading and Note-taking:  Obviously there are many resources and wonderful books on topics that relate to suffering, grace, mercy, strength, cancer, death and Heaven.  One person could not take in all of the information.  Helen would read, and I would read.  I would take notes to condense what I read and compile them in documents and send these notes to her electronically.  She would do the same for me.  It was a wonderful exchange.

Family sensitivity:  I learned this important lesson from a different cancer patient who battle disease valiantly for over twelve years.  As the mom of children who live the disease also, she told me that it is better for the children, especially and even more important if the children are young to avoid asking the child how the sick parent is doing (in the sense of gathering information about the disease, not asking after her well-being).  Admittedly, this is hard, but in many cases, the children or other family members may be dealing with pain themselves and to ask them for a report may put undo pressure or stir up unnecessary pain.  In my limited experience, I learned that it is desirable to talk to the family, but talk to them about themselves and be interested in them and their lives apart from the “weekly report” on the patient.

Random? Creative Ideas:  Rather than give lengthy explanations for these, I will let them speak for themselves.  Please remember that these ideas are not one-size-fits-all.  Perhaps this can stimulate your thinking to come up with ideas that suit your particular situation.
o   Gift cards to eateries around or near the hospital where procedures take place
o   Driving to and from appointments and treatments
o   Sitting with her through her chemotherapy treatments, allowing her to sleep, or distracting her with storytelling, or watching DVDs or Netflix through them.  (I did not know that a chemo infusion takes hours and hours.)
o   Taking juicy fruits and little juice bottles to chemo, such as, but not limited to tangerines, bananas, apple slices, berries and melons.  
o   Cleaning main areas of the house, running the vacuum and dusting.  Or hiring a reputable person to come in and clean.  There is a national website that offers free cleaning services to women with cancer.  I personally did not use it, but know of someone who has and spoke highly of the services.
o   Outings to happy places.  Helen loved the Norfolk Botanical Garden and we would go there to enjoy a picnic that I had made or bought for us and then back home.  Sometimes, just getting out of the house was important therapy.
o   Wash the dog(s), or play with the dogs.
o   Clean the windows.
o   Weed or plant in the garden.
o   If you have musical talent, sing for or play for the person.  Helen’s neighbor played the guitar and would see us or her sitting on the porch and come over and sing for a few minutes, chat and leave.  It was always a welcome interlude.
o   Go over and take a lunch and eat outside.
o   Go wig shopping with her.
o   Go scarf shopping, laughing and learning about how to tie and wear them when the hair falls out and wear a scarf as well when you go out with her.
o   Use the clippers with a ½ inch guard to shave her head when the hair got too thin to look right any more.  (We learned this the hard way, I did not use any guard and the short hairs hurt as they are touched.
o   Vacuum out and wash the car.

These are some of the things that I dreamed up to do for my friend.  After the time came to say goodbye and in the year and months since, I have grown to realize that none of this was about helping Helen.  In the end, it was all about me…   God used Helen, our friendship, her illness and death and grief to change me.  I am a different child of God because of all of it and am confident that through it all God’s perfect purposes and divine design was carried out.  Inexplicably, I am able to say and mean it, “Thank you God, for this sacred journey”.

Finally, here are some resources that I found to be helpful for different reasons.
©    Heaven by Randy Alcorn
©    When Your Friend Gets Cancer by Amy Harwell
©    Please feel free to contact me directly if you have specific questions


  1. This is beautiful Rachelen. You and your friend were quite the pair, I can tell:-) You were blessed to have found each other, and you were blessed to have been there for her when her time was too short, and she needed you to lean on. Thank you for all these suggestions. <3

  2. Rachelen...this post was both helpful & difficult to read. It is so hard for anyone who unfortunately comes face to face with cancer to decipher the needs of their loved one in each moment and shove their own selfish needs to break down in the back of the closet. I don't want to be the one who needs to be supported, I am supposed to be providing that support. So I tuck away my feelings and save them for when it's a "safe" environment. Finding that balance has been the hardest to date. I am so incredibly proud of my dad for all that he endures on a daily/weekly/monthly basis and equally proud of how he has come to terms with the fact that this is his new norm and ours as well. I always knew my dad was a strong man and though his physical attributes have changed drastically, his fighting spirit seems to have gained stamina. Thank you for writing this and thank you, Sarah, for reaching so many people on so many different levels. Love you both!