Friday, June 7, 2013

Steps You Can Take to Help Someone You Love Battle Cancer

Theories: Size 12 readers, I am postponing my next blog article, Theory 5: Play a sport, even if you suck at it, to touch on a more serious topic this week. Today, I feature a guest post from my dear friend and co-worker, Sherri McCall.

Each school-day morning, I drive Alcoa Highway from Knoxville to Maryville. To my left I view God’s power and creation in the majestic Smoky Mountain skyline. To my right, I sense high-speed innovation and adventure in McGhee Tyson Airport. In the midst of all that beauty and progress, it seems that pain and tragedy should be impossible. But, both are there. Sherri and I teach ninth grade technology together in scenic Blount County. We are buffered by The Great Smoky Mountains, top-notch co-workers, an All-American student body, and a supportive community. Sherri jokes that we are soul mates. Once, when I came up with an awesome lesson plan that lightened her work load for a few days, she threatened, “I could kiss you right in the mouth!” We are close (not that close) and I love her dearly.  We are kindred sprits: women, mothers, teachers, caregivers, sufferers, friends, thinkers, and laughers—to say the least. But Sherri is something more. She is a cancer survivor.

Friday, June 7, Maryville College will host the Relay for Life of Blount County. The Facebook page to promote the event challenges followers, “The journey to end cancer starts with a single step. Will you walk with us this weekend?” In honor of the Relay for Life of Blount County, cancer patients everywhere, and those who love them, I asked Sherri to write a blog post to help others. But, I gave her odd instructions. Instead of writing to inspire cancer patients, I asked Sherri to write to the friends and family of cancer patients.
How many of you have asked someone suffering, “What can I do to help?” How many concrete answers did you receive? My guess is not many. Most folks are not as direct as Sherri and I are. Regardless, cancer patients need help and are often so consumed with worry they simply can’t answer such a vague question.  When someone you love is battling cancer, you are part of her journey. So, in honor of the Relay for Life, here are a few of Sherri’s simple, honest, specific steps you can take to help someone you love. 

From Sherri:
Despite the fact that every patient reacts differently to a diagnosis and to treatment options, and each has a unique support system, a common thread exists among people who survive cancer.  Cancer survivors are just that: survivors.  They are diligent, resilient, and possess an inner strength like no other. For me, surviving cancer meant that I had to be strong, graceful under adversity, and I had to do much of “it” on my own.  Others wish to help you, but don’t know how.  Some of the steps I list below detail things that others did for me. Some of the steps I list below are things I needed but had to figure out on my own during cancer treatment.  You may take some or all of the following measures, depending on your loved one’s situation:

Step 1: Don’t ask the patient how you can help. She doesn’t know how to answer that question. 

Step 2: Go to the doctor with the patient. Waiting rooms are depressing and full of apprehensive people. Be present. Whether it is radiation or chemotherapy, offer to go and talk to her while she waits. Even go in with her if she will let you. Anything to get her mind off of her immediate worries will help.  Bring her a People magazine to read or a Sudoku puzzle or word find to fill the time in the waiting room. Include sharpened pencils.  Gossip with her about funny things that happened at work.

Step 3: If you go to appointments or chemo treatments, bring a variety of sweet and salty snacks that you know the patient likes. Anything from Snickers bars, Cheez-its, Diet Coke, bottled water. The patient may not have felt like eating breakfast.  Cheez-its may sound good at 9, but a Snickers bar may do just the trick at 10. Cancer treatments vary, as does the patient’s appetite and nausea. It doesn’t really matter what she eats at this point, just make sure she eats something that she wants, that tastes good to her.

Step 4: Keep a journal. Write things down: things the doctor says, questions the patient has, appointment times, and anything else pertinent to the patient or her treatment/care.  Make notes about positive things too.  Trust me; the patient will not remember anything that was said by the time she walks out of that doctor’s office.  “Deer in the headlights” is what you feel like. You need someone to be your advocate/cheerleader/decision-maker/guide.

Step 5: Pick up her kids from school and take them to Sonic for a Cherry Limeade, to basketball practice and back, or to your house for a few hours. Help them finish homework before you take them home. Depending on where the patient is with treatment, she may be too tired to read with her 3rd grader before bed.  I wouldn’t have cared if a friend or even my ex-husband came to my apartment after school with the kids. If someone had taken charge of dinner, homework, baths, etc. I would have been so appreciative. I wanted to know that they were home and taken care of, but sometimes I didn’t feel well enough to do it myself.

Step 6: Take dinner to the house. Find out what her kids like to eat and fix that.  Make southern “comfort” food: macaroni and cheese, chicken casserole, Jell-O salad (although I HATE Jell-O!  J), or chicken and dumplings, just to name a few. A mother will feel better knowing her kids had dinner, and she just might eat some herself. Make extra to freeze and pull out on days when they don’t feel like cooking. Wash the dishes, and don’t leave items she has to return (casserole pans, Tupperware).

Step 7: Clean her house, do the laundry, load the dishwasher, change the bed sheets.  Anyone who has children likely has a “mess” of some kind in her house at any given time.  Or hire a regular house keeper to come do the big things like vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning the oven, and the windows, while the patient is going through treatment. Several friends could go in together to hire someone once a month for six months.

Step 8: Mail a hand-written note to her. Say what you feel, such as “I am praying for you,” “I admire your strength,” or “Hang in there.” Be specific. Be genuine. Include a gift card to a restaurant (especially one that delivers) for nights when she doesn’t feel like cooking.

Step 9: Do something special for her children.  Take them to a movie on Saturday afternoon.  Go to their orchestra concert and take pictures or video if she is too sick to attend.  Pay on her child’s lunch account at his/her school or pack his/her lunch for a week and send it with your child to them at school.

Step 10: Get a key to her house.  Surprise her by putting dinner in the oven, raking leaves or pulling weeds in the flower beds when she is not at home. Again, several friends could pool money to hire a lawn service to visit periodically.

Step 11: Get involved in a charity that benefits cancer research.  My friends trained and ran in “Race for the Cure” in downtown Knoxville while I was undergoing treatment.  They picked me up, took me with them, and took me out to breakfast afterward.  Those pictures are some of my sweetest memories of that time!  That is a great way to honor someone who is fighting for her life.

Friends and family members of cancer patients, these are just a few steps you can take as you stride alongside someone you love as she fights for her health. Cancer patients, let people help you! Friends and family members will ask, “What can I do to help you?"  Answer them in detail. If nothing else, print this list and hand it to them. They love you. Though not to the same degree, they are suffering and they are treading this journey with you. They may need directions.

Sherri, thank you again for being such a strong role model for others, especially those battling cancer. And, thank you for this post. It is sure to help many!

Readers, please comment below if you would like to share other ideas as to how friends and family may help cancer patients.

For more information on the Relay for Life of Blount County, visit

Be sure to check back here next Friday for Theory 5: Play a sport, even if you suck at it.

Until then, think outside the barn!

Just thinking outside the barn...

Just thinking outside the barn...