Building Your Cancer Village

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work

DECEMBER 05, 2018

Who are the helpers in your life with cancer?

We all know that we need friends to help us get through life. We need each other in the good times and even more in the tough ones. We need our families and our work colleagues and everyone who is important in any part of our lives. We need the woman who always smiles when we check in at the gym and the mailman who has biscuits for our dog and the staff at the coffee house who know our order before we speak. We need them all. Study after study reminds us that people who have good social support manage better and have a higher quality of life—in general and most certainly during and after cancer.

Whenever I meet someone for the first time, I ask: Who is helping you? The answers are often predictable (a spouse, a sister, a dear friend) but sometimes are less expected (a distant cousin who had cancer years ago and has resurfaced with understanding, a neighbor down the street whose mother had cancer). It does not matter who it is; it matters a lot that there are people around. When we see a patient always coming alone for important appointments or treatments, we worry. Sometimes that concern is unfounded as someone is arriving later or there is a clear reason for the choice of solitude, but, more often, it is a legitimate concern.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a community already in place when cancer is diagnosed, there are ways to build one. Remember Fred Roger’s famous advice: Look for the helpers. They are there, The helpers may be your neighbor or the doorman of your building or someone who can represent a larger resource. Consider contacting a synagogue or church or other faith community; they almost always have members who are committed to supporting others through tough times with rides or meals or childcare or other needs. It may seem awkward to call a rabbi or minister now, when you need help, instead of at another time, but I promise the call will be well received. As I write this, I remember Jane who had not been to church in decades. As she became increasingly ill, she walked into the church down the street from her home, knocked on the office door, and simply said: I need help. She got it, and she also found new friends and a deep cushion of caring and assistance.

If you have children in school, call and ask to speak with the school social worker. The school community may well have existing programs that can help you. If not, the social worker or someone else on the staff will likely be responsive and help you problem solve. They want to support their students, and this usually extends to their kids’ families.

Call your town hall and briefly explain your situation. You can just say something like: I am being treated for cancer and am calling to inquire about available resources in town to help me. There may be town employees who can help, and you certainly will be told about any organizations or individuals who can be contacted.

Finally, a promising and very obvious spot to begin building your cancer support community is at the hospital or clinic or practice where you receive your care. Ask to talk with an oncology social worker or a patient navigator. They will know about assistance in your community as well as what is available at the hospital. Chat with the people sitting near to you in the waiting room or the person in the next treatment chair. Seriously think about joining a support group; you will make friends there who may become the most important members of your team. In my decades of facilitating cancer support groups, it has always been a joy to watch women reaching out to and helping each other.

It takes a village to get through cancer. Beginning to populate that village will be easier than it may seem. Generally speaking, most people want to be helpful, and everyone understands the challenges of cancer.

How have you built your village? Have there been surprises? Share your story in the BIDMC Cancer Community.