I found myself nodding along to so many of these recommendations. One of the kindest things anyone did for me when I was battling Lyme was take notes during my doctor appointments. It was so helpful because I was so unbelievably overwhelmed. Thank you so much to Grace for sharing - I'm positive it's going to help so many. If you have any others to add, or just want to chime in with your thoughts, please leave her a comment down in the comments section below. xoCandace
When you have a loved one in your life - whether they are an immediate family member, an extended family member, a friend, a co-worker, you name it - that's been diagnosed with a debilitating serious disease, watching them suffer is not only unsettling, it’s painful. We want to help them however we can, but we just don't know how. Sadly, I am all too familiar with this feeling. My mom passed away from metastatic breast cancer when I was only nine years old.
Unfortunately, the reality is while we all want to show our loved ones that we support them through their serious illness, we’ll do things that actually hurt them. A perfect example of this is sending flowers. When my mom was sick in the hospital, she received dozens of bouquets. One day, she confessed to my dad that the flowers, while they were a nice gesture, only reminded her that she was dying. And based on my experience in the breast cancer space, due to the expansion and commercialization of the breast cancer awareness movement, people that want to demonstrate their support also often rely on spending big bucks for products that are branded with pink ribbons and/or claim to donate money to breast cancer charities. Unfortunately, there is a lot of controversy surrounding those pinkwashed products, and they don't have much substantive meaning behind them.
There are other more meaningful ways to support someone you love that has breast cancer or any serious illness. Flowers and pink ribbons, while fundamentally may come from a good place, are generally more passive ways of showing a loved one that you care. In this list, I want to provide you with ten alternative suggestions that are more active ways to not only support them, but to help them and to love them.
1) Offer to drive them to a doctor's appointment
After a diagnosis for any serious medical condition, your loved one will have to go to the doctor a lot. Between consultations with their primary care physician, specialists, and surgeons, their calendar fills up quickly with appointments. Your loved one may feel too ill to regularly drive themselves to the doctor’s office. Often times the driving falls to the responsibility of their significant other or an immediate family member. My dad had to drive my mom sometimes multiple days a week to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and back, which from where our family lived was over a two hour drive each way. My dad remembers having to pull over the car to the side of the road because my mom would become queasy after chemo and have to throw up. Needless to say, the task of driving our loved ones to their appointments can become incredibly taxing. Offering to take a day off from work, or even just half a day off, to drive someone you love to their doctor’s appointment is an act of kindness that will not be forgotten.
2) Help take notes for them during an important medical consultation
A few months ago I had an appointment at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Office of Genetics regarding my breast cancer genetic testing. When I was there, they provided me with, well, an information overload. A family member asked me later why it was that I went to the appointment alone. I usually went to doctor’s appointments alone so I didn't think anything of it. However, in retrospect I realized that she brought up a good point. If your loved one has a serious medical condition, they'll not only be bombarded with doctors appointments, they'll also be provided a whirlwind of information at each of these visits. They’re going through a lot of physical as well as mental and emotional stress, so it's virtually impossible to take down or memorize all the information that the doctors are providing them. Your loved one may really need or appreciate your help with taking diligent notes and asking questions to the doctor because they may be too overwhelmed to do so themselves.
3) Drive them to pick up their prescriptions
If you just don't have time to do either of the previous two suggestions, offer instead to drive your loved one to the pharmacy to pick up their prescriptions. It's a small gesture, but it's a little reminder to your loved one that they have a support network that will lift them through all of life’s moments. It's also a way to motivate them to keep going, to not give up on their life even if they're sick, because their life matters. Also, as many of you have probably experienced, the pharmacy can be a stressful place. Your loved one may have to call their health insurance company in frustration because there's a problem in issuing their prescription. They may not have much energy if they encounter headaches. You never know, just being there for them just to rub their back as they're face palming the phone over administrative insurance mishaps could make all the difference.
4) Make them some home cooked food when they’re too weak to cook
As my mom’s health started to decline, unsurprisingly so did her energy to cook. My mom didn't want to resort necessarily to buying fast food all the time, but meal delivery services weren't exactly cheap either. My dad didn't have much time to cook because when he wasn't caring for my mom’s health, he was operating his own small business to make enough money to support my family. So when a loved one brought her some home cooked food she would be very grateful. If you find the energy, you'll never disappoint a loved one that's seriously ill by bringing over a lasagna, a casserole, or whatever. If that dish gives them one less thing to worry about for a day or two, that's more than enough. And cooking is such a holistic way of offering a gift to a loved one and showing them you care about their wellbeing.
5) Give them a care package with some of their favorite things
When a loved one is suffering from a serious illness, they're susceptible to feeling lost, trapped, and unsure of their identity anymore. Once anyone comes down with a disease or an illness, especially one that can recur like cancer, it's hard to not to feel like your condition is who they are. But it's not who they are, and as a loved one, be there to help them remember that. Assuming that you wouldn't buy them anything that risks jeopardizing their health, put together a care package of all their favorite things. Whether those things are their favorite snack, tickets to a football game, or a banging pair of sunglasses, give them things that fundamentally remind them of who they are, what they like, and what makes them smile. And PS, those things you give them don't need to have cancer ribbons plastered all over them. They're human beings, not ribbons.
6) Babysit their kids
When my mom was undergoing everything from routine chemotherapy treatments to intensive surgeries like her bone marrow transplant, she sometimes would be in the hospital for weeks on end. We were fortunate enough that there were aunts and grandparents in the family that were able and willing to babysit me, but that task wasn't always easy for them to bare. If your loved one has children, offer to take the kids out to lunch, to the movies, or even to have them over your house for the day. I remember there were family friends that offered to do just that, and I'll never forget their willingness to step up during our time of need. And the last thing your loved one with children will want to be worried about is their kids being alone or unattended to. Help watch the kids so your loved one can focus their energy a little more on improving their health.
7) Join them for a meditation class
As a quick note before diving into this suggestion, from my perspective meditation can take many forms. Whether it's a dedicated meditation class, a reiki class, or even just a visit to a place of worship, in the onslaught of chaos your loved one may be craving to find their true sense of self again. My mom was already religious, but she made a point of going to church every Sunday when her health permitted. Joining them for a meditative experience may provide them with a sense of trust, openness, and peacefulness. Even if they're embarking on their own individual journey when meditating or praying, just knowing there's someone that's sitting beside them will only help them feel that much more safe and secure.
8) Go clothes shopping with them
When you're healthy, clothes shopping can already be stressful enough. No store ever seems to carry pants that fit over your wide hip bones, shirts with sleeves that are long enough to cover your wrists, or dresses that aren’t see through. But when you're sick with a serious illness, clothes shopping can be a different stressful experience entirely. My mom, being sick with breast cancer, had problems finding clothes that could flatter her. Between her double mastectomy, rapid weight gain and weight loss from chemotherapy, and shaved head, finding clothes was a challenge. Your loved one may need some support going to the store and buying a new wardrobe that won't make them feel super crummy about their self image. Just being there to remind them that they look great by simply being who they are is critically important to their sense of self worth.
9) Take them out for a cup of tea and just let them talk, a lot
When your loved one is sick with a serious illness, they have a lot on their plate at home. Between balancing their health, family, and bills, it's all enough to make them feel like they're drowning. They may have a lot of emotions bottled up because they put on a fresh face of armor everyday even in their physical and emotional pain. If you take them out of the house to a different environment, order them a cup of tea and let them just talk to you, like really talk, that could be incredibly therapeutic for them. They may feel a newfound energy that allows them to feel more at ease with opening up about some of the feelings that they bury in their illness. At the end of the day, we're all humans that want to be heard, validated, and understood.
10) Laugh with them, and laugh with them often
In some ways I saved what I consider to be the most important suggestion for last. Quite frankly, it’s pretty simple - life is too short to not find time to laugh! Laughter is what will help your loved one persevere through the darkest of times - the chemotherapy treatments, endless hospital visits, countless days of aches and pains. Laughter is what will make their days shine a little brighter, and make their desire to live a little stronger. Laughing should never be underestimated, it's how people bond with one another and build lasting human relationships. Whether it's showing your loved one a stupid YouTube video, a ridiculous meme, a hilarious TV show, retelling an old memory or making funny faces, laughter will provide that much needed endorphin release. And sometimes those moments of laughter truly have to come during the worst of times. When my mom had to shave her head, we had a barber and dear friend of the family come over to help us out. I don't remember what was said in the kitchen when she was getting her head shaved, but I do remember all of us making light of the situation and laughing. I can smile when I think about my mom losing her hair, how weird is that? But it's better I remember that because at least I can reminisce on that otherwise tragic moment and feel a lightness in my heart. In spite of my mom passing away, if there's anything I try to remember most about my mom, it was her smile and the sound of her laugh.
Bio: Grace Slawski is a writer and founder of the blog Breast Cancer Feminist, where every Thursday she talks about her mom that passed away from metastatic breast cancer and the need for more feminism in the breast cancer awareness movement. Currently based in Miami, FL, she hopes above all else to pursue a career in writing and to change the world, one word at a time. In her free time, Grace is also a runner, an aspiring yoga teacher, and an outdoor enthusiast.