The Low Down on How to Support Cancer Survivors

The man who has served as my “pinch hitter” in the father department was recently diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. As a breast cancer survivor, friends and family have asked my advice on how to support our beloved friend. Their numerous inquiries coupled with the knowledge that National Cancer Survivors Day is June 7, made me compelled to share a few insights on how to best support someone going through the cancer journey. Of course, everyone’s needs are different but I think there are a few, what I call “no brainers”, that are worth mentioning.

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The Good The Bad and The I Can’t Believe You Just Said That!
My Pops always used to say, “A fish never got into trouble until he opened his mouth.” I often thought of these wise words when attempting to respond to comments regarding my condition. For example, I didn’t find comfort in “Aren’t you lucky to get a new pair of perky boobs.”

Just for the record, I liked my original set but they were killing me. I loved being the soft, squishy Mom my kids fell into. Now I feel like I could poke someone’s eye out if I enter a hug at the wrong angle. For me, having reconstructive implants is like wearing a sports bra two sizes too small that I can never take off. I have forever lost the “aaahhhhhhhhhhhhh” moment at the end of the day when you finally get “unhooked.” Who would sign up for that?

June 2015 3I understand the need and desire of others to have plastic surgery, but it was never part of my game plan. I wanted to be like the rocks by the shore at our Canadian home; naturally worn and beautiful with imperfection. Well, I have the imperfect part covered now but not how I imagined.

Think before a “Do you have feelings in those?’ or “Wow, I hope it isn’t genetic for your kids’ sake” leaves your lips. Be the little rabbit Thumper who told Bambi, “If you can’t say nothin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

Get Physical
Many times cancer survivors are left with physical limitations, especially fatigue. Lifting a milk carton seemed like an Olympic event when I was going through the battle. Be the arms, legs and hands of a survivor. Running errands, weeding their garden, planting flowers, and washing their car are PRICELESS gifts from the heart that will always be cherished.

Food, Glorious Food
My daughters and I turned into “Pavlovian beasts” when we heard the doorbell ring, knowing there would be food and friendship on the other side. To this day, I remember those who saved us one noodle casserole and Matzo ball soup at a time.

Chemo Care
I will always cherish my dear friend Virginia who took me wig shopping. Mind you, my options were fro, curly fro, red fro and black fro until she looked at me and said, “Baby girl, I just realized something. You’re not black!” She was there for me in my time of need.

Frankly, I wish I would have chosen something from the store she selected instead of playing it safe. Wig shopping is a bizarre, terrifying experience and only the brave should tag along. If you are one of the few, courageous and compassionate people up for the emotional rollercoaster that will ensue as reality slowly seeps into your survivor, sign up for this daunting task. You will take up permanent residence in your survivor’s heart.

Also, load a basket on chemo day of hard candy, a cozy blanket, magazines, a small album loaded with photos to remind your survivor there are better days to come and phone numbers of support services in the area.

The Bottom Line
Every survivor I have had the honor of getting to know has one very important thing in common: They don’t care as much about themselves as the ones they might leave behind. Reassure them that you will be there for the mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons who are going through the journey with them. Let your survivor vent or say nothing. Follow their lead.

I know, it’s tough to know what to say and when to say it. This is when you extend your arms and give them a squeeze—gently, as there could be drainage tubes. Above all just BE — the listening ear, the nurturing touch, and the hand to hold.

Sign up for our Friends for Life newsletter to receive more stories by Mary Helen Darah, as well as healthy living advice and recipes.

MaryMary Helen Darah is an award-winning columnist who has appeared in numerous publications in the Toledo area and beyond. She has also been honored for her work and inspiration as a breast cancer survivor. 

“The Mother of Mayhem” has a continual source of material through interactions with daughters Lauren, Helena, and Maria; and international student, May Liu from China..

Mary Helen looks forward to writing and sharing the stories of members of our community who turn the ordinary into the extraordinary while delivering a dose of what she feels is the best medicine — laughter — in her monthly column, The Mother of Mayhem.