Thriving, Part 4. Thriving With Cancer Means “Letting” People Help

Cynthia Bailey, MD|October 18, 2016

It is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and this article is Part 4 of Dr. Bailey's Thriving Series, her 5-part blog series sharing insights and personal experiences for going beyond surviving cancer, to thriving.

I always prefer to be the one 'doing the giving.'  I always repay a favor by reciprocating at least what was given to me, and ideally more.  I’ve always felt better with my favor balance sheet ending up this way. 

But when I announced to my community that I had serious breast cancer, offers of help started coming in.  What's more, once I started chemo I realized I was going to need help. I also knew that my favor balance sheet was going to have to go into very uncomfortable territory - and may never be rectified.  Accepting that I needed help was another jump into the abyss

Dr. Bailey struggling through chemo infusion treatment with cold caps. 

The challenge was that my cancer survivorship doctor, Dr. Shaw, said that if I walked 40 minutes every day I would get a 20% bump in my chance of surviving. I wanted every survival bump I could get.  And this meant I wanted to get out and walk - yet on chemo I felt so ill it wasn’t safe for me to walk alone. 

Dr. Shaw warned me in advance that when you are on chemo it is easier to sit on the couch and eat saltine crackers for the chemo stomache ache, than it is to get out and walk.  She said DO NOT make the couch and saltine choice. I needed to walk, and I had to figure out how to make that happen.

Chemotherapy treatments have an almost bipolar rhythm, which I used to my advantage.  With the type of dose-dense chemo I was on my chemo infusions happened every 2 weeks, and included drugs meant to prevent me from getting really sick due to high chemo doses. These 'helper' drugs included a huge dose of steroids.  Steroids make me feel like Superwoman.  So on my first steroid-laced chemo upswing mania I got busy. I was up before dawn, green tea in hand, laptop computer on, actively deleting all pre-cancer responsibilities and appointments, simultaneously reading Life Over Cancer by Keith Block M.D., making a list of what I was supposed to do to get statistical “survival bumps,” and also researching chemo side effects and mastectomy options.  I NEEDED to know everything NOW.

Then I learned about Caring Bridge.

Caring Bridge is something everyone who is seriously ill needs to know about.  It’s a web site where you or your caregivers create a calendar that is shareable with your friends, so they can volunteer to help you with the specific tasks you need, at the right times.  Whether you need help at home, rides to the doctor, cooking, or in my case exercising, Caring Bridge is great.  You can even share your health journey on your Caring Bridge page to keep family and friends informed.  Many people do. On my Caring Bridge Calendar I created Walk Dates for exercise and Ride Dates for my doctor’s appointments.  I sent out invitations to those friends and acquaintances who expressed an interest in helping me.  Yes, some people never were able to help, but many were.  

I have to admit, I was nervous about this at first.  I was embarrassed to be someone with cancer who NEEDED help and might inspire pity; it felt intimate to have people come to my home and see me so ill; I also knew that I may never be able to reciprocate if my health failed.  I didn’t let these fears stop me though because I kept asking myself:

What do I have to lose? Heck, I have serious cancer and may die, so what if I’m “embarrassed.” I NEED help.  And cheering up.

Frankly, measured against cancer so many things become unimportant in comparison. Letting go of feeling embarrassed was another jump into the unfamiliar abyss.

My criteria for who I invited to help on my Caring Bridge was: 1) anyone who said they wanted to help, and 2) who I thought would be comforting.  Even if I didn't know them well I would still give it a try.  If they expressed an interest to help, I sent an invite. 

People signed up to walk with me every day!  Yes, my dance card filled up.  On chemo bipolar “up” days, my walking helper and I got exercise.  On the “down” days it might be a 40 minute hobble back and forth on the driveway.  With the help of new and old friends I walked 40 minutes nearly every single day, just like Dr. Shaw told me to do.  These Walk and Talk Dates were my anchor.  And the result is that now I have more dear friends than ever before. Life is sweeter and feels softer surrounded by kind people.  Old and new friends buoyed my spirits through the tough times, while also helping me get that 20% survival bump! They also nourished me emotionally, increasing my vitality to thrive beyond what I could do on my own.  It was sweet and wonderful. 

Dr. Bailey (left) on a Walk & Talk Date with friend, and dogs Rubio & Cody.

In my post-treatment life I still spend time with these friends. And I have personally vowed to NEVER AGAIN let my 'favor balance sheet anxiety' or workaholic tendencies win out over friend time. Welcoming help from friends, and prioritizing friend time was another jump into the abyss - and one that I recommend every person consider who is hit with cancer

For me, this jump meant thriving because of cancer.

How have you learned to let people help when you needed it most? We love to hear your stories in the comments below.

Stay tuned for more of Dr. Bailey’s series on Thriving With Breast Cancer - beyond surviving to thriving. 

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