"Is there anything I can do?" "What do you need?" Over and over, that's what I heard from friends when I had a return of breast cancer.
I had surgery, eight chemotherapy sessions, then five weeks of radiation ahead of me. Seven and a half months of treatment that would begin in a July heat wave and end in the last dreary days of February.
I knew my friends cared about me. I'm a widow, I live alone and I would turn 70 in the middle of the treatments. Of course they wanted to help. What my friends didn't understand was how hard it was to respond to those questions, partly because I didn't know what I needed, but also because I was hesitant to tell them what I did need.
But I did need help, and, of course, my kind and clever friends soon figured out what they could do.
Except on bad chemo days, everyone has to eat. One friend made batches of old-fashioned chicken soup with vegetables in a thick broth. That soup turned out to be all I ate for several days after each treatment.
When I felt like eating again I was hungry but I sure didn't feel like cooking. One blazingly hot afternoon, a friend arrived with delicious cold gazpacho, another with chilled watermelon. A loyal friend with a busy career dropped off a fresh organic papaya once a week. Another friend who knew I felt guilty about not eating more veggies, regularly brought me trays of cut vegetables with hummus.
It helped when someone didn't ask "What can I do to help?" but said "I'll bring dinner this week. Do you want meat loaf or vegetarian lasagna?" That was a question I could answer.
One young woman, the mother of a new baby, phoned to say, "My husband will come over Sunday afternoon with some food. He'll bring the baby so you can meet her but he won't stay." The baby was adorable and I was left with a basket of black bean soup, chicken curry, couscous and cranberry loaf. That busy new mum could have guessed I'd turn her down if she'd asked "What can I do?" She just did something.
After one friend realized it was a long trek from my upstairs bedroom to the downstairs fridge every time I wanted a cold drink she arrived on my doorstep with a small fridge she'd purchased from a second-hand store.
Knowing I'm a reader, many friends gave me books, lent me books and recommended books. A writer friend discovered we were both fans of the author Ellen Gilchrist and came over to lend me her favourite books.
A new friend, a former tenant, brought special English crackers for nausea. We squeezed in a game of gin rummy when I was well enough, though I credited her victories to my chemo brain.
I have a friend who always talks movies and videos with me. She had an idea, and, like clockwork, before every treatment, arrived on my doorstep with new videos.
A few years ago, I'd helped a friend through lung cancer. Now she arranged for me to have massages from her own therapist. One for each of my treatments; eight massages!
Learning to accept such generous gifts has been part of this journey for me.
Most of my family live out of town but they phoned and visited often. My 17-year-old granddaughter came to see me, bringing a cozy pair of flannelette pyjamas, and told me my wig looked great. My grandson came to town and spent part of his birthday money to buy me an ABBA tape. My eldest son brought his one-year-old to visit as often as he could, and my daughter, who lives close by, brought her four-year-old over when I was too tired to move from the sofa. Reading stories to them was the best trick I knew to forget about myself.
My athletic daughter-in-law organized a team of women to walk a marathon to raise money for breast cancer research. I was a volunteer serving cold drinks at a pit stop along the way and burst into tears when "my" team stopped at the booth.
Many people were "just there" for me; making sure I had someone to drive me to each of the chemotherapy treatments, phoning and dropping by with healing lavender oil or ginger tea, staying to empty my dishwasher or fold the laundry that piled up on the end of my bed.
One fall day, an old friend arrived to give me a day's clean-up work in my patio garden. Then, when Christmas was coming and I was overwhelmed at the thought of it, another friend took me shopping; still another came over to wrap the presents I'd bought for my family.
Out-of-town friends helped too. A web-savvy pal offered to be my "information source." I'd e-mail her questions about treatments and back would come the answers that saved me hours of frustration.
A friend in Toronto sent my daughter money to buy fresh flowers for every treatment. Through the gerberas or the freesias I felt her strong support.
It's important to remember what the patient is going through. During treatments your friends may not be themselves. There are massive biochemical changes going on inside them. At times I was weepy, cranky, depressed and judgmental. Be prepared for these changes, bear with your friends and assure them that their wonderful personalities will return soon.
Having treatments for cancer was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do; having friends who knew what they could do to help me was one the greatest blessings of my life.