cancer-helping: appreciative inquiry style

I’m hesitant to write this post. But I will write it anyway. I will write it a la appreciative inquiry.

I’ll write it because whenever I hang out with other young (and not as young) adults with cancer, it comes up. I’ll write it because for some reason,  people keep forwarding me these lists of “what to say/not to say to you your friend with cancer,” which I think it so interesting because I’m the one with cancer, and presumably, I know what not to say. Sometimes, they’re cheeky. Often, they’re grimly funny. Always, they hold some truth. You can easily find multiples of these lists if you google “what not to say to your friend with cancer,” or something like that. Periodically, they float around Facebook and even other sites like HuffPost and NYTimes. It should be easy to find them.

It seems that, although there are myriad of these lists out in the world, those of us with cancer are driven to write them again and again because people don’t read them, and/or continue to say the things on these lists. Chances are, if you can find it on a list someone has said it to me at least twice, and I’ve talked about it with other young women with cancer. Sometimes I think there are so many lists like this that the over-proliferation of “what not to say” lists is why sometimes people tend to total radio silence: absolute fear of actually saying one of the listed “what not to say” things, because when you read them in list form, they seem absolutely insane. They provoke reactions like, how could anyone ever say that?!?!? Trust me, everyone could say these things, often they do, they don’t mean to be so wildly insensitive, and it doesn’t seem like they are so horrendous in the moment. Enough people say these things that I have a collective list running with some cancer-buddies. Even I could say these things, and I have cancer.

So, I won’t repost, reiterate, retell the same story about what-not-to-say, though mine is a related one. This is a story about the helping everyone around me wants so badly to do, the helping that always falls short of actually fulfilling what everyone would like to do, which is to take away the cancer. This is a story about the famous line, “let me know if I can do anything, anything at all,” that is accompanied by eyes that speak volumes more, that are spoken by dear people all around who desperately want to do something, anything. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by people who always let me know that they are willing to help me in any way I can dream up. And I think that when they say “let me know if I can do anything, anything at all,” what they really mean is, “I am so sorry I can’t make it go away. I hate that I can’t make it go away. I want to think of something that will make it at least a little tiny bit better, but I have no idea how to do that.”

Thing is, I’m not ever actually going to call any of them and ask them for help with anything. Why, you ask? Because I have no idea what to ask for, I have no idea how to start the conversation and while I do actually need help with many things breaking them down into chunks that won’t overwhelm my friends is cumbersome. I’m worried about overtaxing you. I’m worried about your reaction to this total madness. I don’t want to be treated like a tragedy, and helping sounds like something you do in a tragedy.

Now, if you’ve offered to do something for me, or help me with anything I need, please do not feel bad. I really, really do appreciate the sentiment. It’s lovely to know people are thinking of me. Frankly, I wouldn’t know what to say in many of these situations either. It’s a little mind-boggling, which is both why you look at me with those big eyes and offer to do anything I need and why I have no idea what to do with your kind offering of “anything I need.”  I don’t often know what I need right now, let alone tomorrow or next week.

So, I’ll list here some of the most helpful things people have done, that don’t make me feel like a tragedy, and that are very helpful. I think the done part is key: all these people acted. Sometimes, doing is really helpful. Sometimes, friends know what might make the day a little brighter, or the treatment a little less awful, or writing a little easier. They did something, and its the action there that is the best thing, ever, because it’s concrete. It’s a concrete suggestion/offer/action, and I can engage with the concrete, and I don’t need to do any of the work thinking up what they could do that would be helpful.

This exercise, for me, is a little appreciative-inquiry-y. I learned about appreciative inquiry from my artist-friend Sita back in 2002, when we were but baby AMIGOS living in Barahona, DR. She is someone who can sit quietly in any corner of the world and listen, and hear beauty. Not rainbows and unicorns beauty, but real, solid, thoughtful, inspiring beauty. She can then move others to listen carefully enough until there is a whole symphony of beauty sounding out from that corner of the world. That’s something to aspire to, and that is the embodiment of appreciative inquiry. When we think with an appreciative inquiry lens, we think of what’s worked really well and acknowledge those things working well, and make more of them, because we know that our bodies, communities, worlds are capable of healing themselves without the crazy amount of fixing and making better that are endemic to the Western world. It’s a way of thinking about situations and people and worlds that have historically been treated as broken such that we can recognize capacity and sparkle, and build on capacity and shine sparkle. It’s about vibrancy, it’s about what already exists, what is already right. It’s about holding others carefully and closely, and seeing creatively, and it’s about a deep respect for others and it’s about grounded hope.*

So here we go, a list of the most awesome ways people (some of these the same person over and over again) have helped, when I didn’t need to come up with what they could do or what I wanted them to do or what I needed:

  • I got a text message today that said, “What was the happiest moment of your day today?” Immediately, I knew she was thinking of me. I was invited to think of something sweet. With her text, she acknowledged that my life is not entirely crap-filled, by suggesting that something was great enough in my day to share. In responding, I got to think about multiple really special things about today, and decide which one to share with her. It was a mutual exchange. I could ask the question back, and she could answer, and I could delight in her own moment of happiness.
  • Appointment Buddies & Remembering Dates One friend asked for my appointment dates, my chemo dates, all kinds of dates. He periodically checks in before each of these dates, which he put in his calender, to make sure Sam can come with me or I have a buddy, and/or offers to come. I don’t have to ask him to remember. I don’t have to remind him. I know if I need a buddy, he’ll ask a few days before. It takes all the pressure off of me to make sure I have someone coming. He’s totally fine if I already have a buddy, and doesn’t mind being on stand-by in case I need one. He lets me know exactly what his schedule is around the appointment times, and around my chemo times, so that I know when he can help if I need help.
  • Persistent phone messages An old friend has left me probably four phone messages in the last two weeks. We recently caught up on facebook chat, but we still have not found a time to talk on the phone. Nevertheless, she continues to call. Because she continues to call and leave sweet messages, I know she isn’t upset with me for not answering, but rather, that she supports me and that when I have the time and spirit to pick up, she’ll be there. I know she cares. And she showed me its OK not to answer, both by saying so in her message and by continuing to call.  Her persistence is really important to me. It makes it so clear that she continues to think about what’s going on, and she continues to be there. She keeps calling. It’s incredible.
  • Normal Days  I have cancer, but I’m still me. I still also like to drink almond milk lattes and get my nails done. One friend in particular knows this really well. She still talks to me about the same old drama we’ve always loved to gossip about. She doesn’t ask invasive cancer questions. She shares whats going on in her life. We make dinner as we always have. The normalcy with which she approaches this new normal is comforting. She still expects me to support her, and I still want to. She still supports me as she always has. Going to a doctor appointment isn’t so different from meeting for coffee, after all. It’s really lovely to have a friend continue to be as she always has been, even though things have became anything but as they always were.
  • Pajama Box I have received two lovely packages with fuzzy jammies and socks in them. This is awesome, because it says, “Hey, I know things kind of suck, here’s some warm and fuzzy things that might make it suck a little less. Also, since my feet are freaking out from the chemo in the form of painful nerve damage to the soles of my feet, the fuzzy socks are now my best friends.
  •  Borrowed Movies I was really worried about my fourth chemo, because I was insanely sick after my third chemo. A friend brought me a splendid set of her movies, which I diligently have watched since the last chemo. That gave me something to look forward to even though I was dreading feeling crappy, and something to distract me from the fact that I was too tired to do what I wanted to be doing. And every time I get to watch one of these movies, I think of this friend lending them to me, and feel special that I am lucky enough to have a friend with such an amazing collection of DVDs.
  • A memory A girl I worked with on youth projects, and with whom I shared an absolute love of poster-making, sent me a set of poster-markers. These poster-markers were particularly cool, because they were exactly the same as the ones I attempted to quietly steal from her, one by one, during the time we worked together on said youth projects. This made me laugh. And dream up ways to use the markers. I was transported to another time, to a happy moment, and to a whole bunch of caring and friendship and ridiculousness I shared with this girl. I also knew that she would be using the same set of poster-markers as she cavorts around continuing to run youth projects, and that made me hopeful and excited about something else in the world.
  • Dinner & Snack-Pack Last week, someone brought me what can only be described as dinner and a snack-pack. They made a really simple dinner that was bland enough for my sensitive taste buds, and delivered it wrapped with ribbons. I did not know it was coming. It also came with a brown bag of tangerines, peanut butter & rice crackers, and a gingerale for me and a coke for Sam. It was really simple, but it was so important to me that this person also thought of Sammy- with the Coke! I’d never drink coke, but he loves it. And he’s also right here, dealing with everything with me, doing all the dishes and making sure my supply of frozen grapes isn’t low. It was really nice to have him remembered. And the tangerines and PB&crackers were a lovely next-day snack. It was so thoughtful and touching to come home to an already-made dinner after a long day of appointments.
  • A Visit From Afar Especially when people come from far-away, it’s a relief both to know they are coming and be able to express that that feels good, and then, for them to handle the rest of the process without me. It’s true, that it wouldn’t be OK for everyone to come a-running to Canada, but a few people visiting, mostly people from the inner circle and old friends, that’s really great. A friend called and said, “OK, I booked my tickets!” after we talked briefly about her coming a certain weekend. Another wrote and was explicit about exactly what she wanted to do while she was here, checked dates with Sam, and then also booked her tickets. I didn’t have to do much either time, beyond have one single conversation about how it would be great for them to come. I do live far from a lot of my nearest and dearest friends, so these visits are always welcome, and its so nice when people will lie on the couch with me, or go wig shopping, or endure an appointment, or eat plain rice and steamed veggies with me, or go with me to Bikram yoga because they’re here even though they hate the heat. I appreciate how little I have to do to make these visits happen, and how easy they are.

*Grounded hope. It’s a thing. It’s different than just hope. I have more to say about why I needed to qualify the hope as grounded, but I’m too tired right now, so I’ll write this little footnote later.


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