This week I’m recovering from a second surgery in this long cancer journey, so I’ve had some time on my hands and some real life opportunities to reflect on what “support” means to me in the middle of all of this. The thing is, I’m…
not good at asking for help, and not always particularly graceful in accepting it. So much of my sense of self is my sense of independence – that I am smart and self-reliant and that I can do whatever I set my mind to. And at first around the time of my diagnosis, I experienced all the offers of “support” as challenging my hard earned sense of self. “No really, I can get my own groceries … and thank you but it’s easier to hop on the red line to get home from MGH than to wait for a ride and fight the traffic on the Longfellow Bridge detour …” And every time I politely declined these offers of support, I felt terrible, like I was hurting someone’s feelings, or not being grateful enough, even though I knew it felt right to me.
As time has passed, I’m learning what genuine support feels like for me, and I’m learning how to ask for it and redirect people when they miss the mark. I’ve learned that when someone offers, “let me know how I can be helpful,” that I will almost never think of anything. But when someone says, “could I bring you some tomato soup I just made on Tuesday night,” that I am more likely to say “yes please!” When someone offers a ride or to come to an appointment with me – which I almost never actually want – I’ve learned to say, “no thank you, but do you think you could pick me up on Saturday morning so I can do some shopping?” When someone I love dearly offered to come with me to this week’s surgery, but I knew that it would make her nervous, and then I’d be anxious about her nervousness … I didn’t just say “yes” because it would be ungrateful not to. I said, “thanks so much, but you know what I need even more than that is someone to take me home the day after, and maybe someone to make me some soup!” A much better fit for her and for me!
I’m learning that support comes in so many forms, and I think the key is that it has to match both the giver and the receiver in a natural way to feel truly supportive. Otherwise, it can honestly feel like more work for the person on the receiving end. There are some people in my circle who have supported me enormously just by texting me once in a while, and others who have brought me food and others who have sat next to me as I recovered from surgery. There’s not one “right” way to support a person with cancer. The key is to be authentic and to listen to what a person actually wants rather than assuming you already know – and then those offers of support will feel like real expressions of love and care.