What is resilience? It’s the ability to bounce when we come up against something tough, like cancer. Will we bounce like a rubber ball, or like a tomato? I learned a lot about resilience at the 2018 Breath of Hope Lung Foundation’s Lung Cancer Summit. Perhaps my greatest takeaways came from a talk delivered by Dr. Jeffery Kendall. PsyD, LP. Dr. Kendall delivered a keynote address entitled, Resilience and Hope for Survivors & Caregivers. In the next few weeks, I am going to share a few of the things I learned from this inspiring message. I’ll start today by touching on the first key ingredient to a resilient life: supportive connections.
The impact of supportive connections on cancer survivors and caregivers can’t be overlooked. Yet cancer, itself, directly affects relationships for people facing cancer—often negatively. During treatment, the roles within the patient’s family unit are often changed. Often survivors no longer feel connected to the people they once worked and spent leisure time with. These people may treat the patient and/or caregiver differently than they did before cancer.
Early on, someone told my husband and me, “When you have cancer, you will be surprised by the people who you thought would be there for you, but suddenly disappear. You will be equally amazed by near-strangers who reach out to you and support you in phenomenal ways.”
They were so right!
Good relationships are essential to resilience. Yet, so many people lack the supportive connections they desperately need. One in four people in the UK who are diagnosed with cancer lack support from family and friends during treatment and recovery. This isolation is evident from the very beginning of the patient’s cancer journey. Only one in five men has a loved one present when they hear the words, “It’s cancer,” for the first time, 
When everything is going well, it can be easy to live an independent life. We don’t see the need for supportive connections. But when everything goes south, we find ourselves feeling very alone and isolated.
That’s what happened to me. As an introvert, I hadn’t fostered many relationships. The few I had, crumbled when Dan was diagnosed. People didn’t know what to say, so it was easier to say nothing at all. And, I didn’t exactly chase after them. But over the years I’ve made a few friends who are more precious than gold.
Where can you find the supportive connections you need?
Aside from your place of employment and the people you already know, it can be tough to know where to turn for support. Are you involved in any special interest groups, already?
Civic groups and faith-based organizations are great places to find supportive connections. If you belong to one of these, you already share a common bond with these people. Often they have systems in place to support people who are dealing with something difficult. Your church may have a prayer chain; the Lions club might have a group of men who can modify your home to make it disability accessible; the PTA might have some parents who can bring meals on a rotation.
Even if none of these groups have a specific system in place, the ties you form with the people you meet there will enlarge your support system. I am part of a group called TOPS (Taking Off Pounds Sensibly) I haven’t been able to attend for nearly a year (and my waistline shows it) but the wonderful members of my TOPS group continue to encourage me with cards and phone calls. One of my TOPS friends has provided meals to our family during our worst times.
Taking a Risk
We need to take some responsibility for the state of our social life. If we don’t make the effort to make friends, it’s no one’s fault but our own that we have none. If someone takes the time to talk to you, don’t brush them off. Allow yourself to be vulnerable with them.
It’s a risk, to be sure. It is discouraging when you share the things that are weighing on your heart, only to have someone tell you after 5 minutes of talking that you are doing it all wrong. Everything could be solved—your loved one’s cancer could be cured if you would only do this or that. I’ve had that happen more times than I can count and it does make you gun-shy about sharing with others—even people you have known a long time.
When someone asks you how they can help, what do you say? If you’re like a lot of people, you don’t know what to say. This is especially true when someone offers in an open-ended way.
- “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.”
- “Is there anything I can do?”
Often, people make these “anything goes” offers because they have no idea how to best be there for you. Even though I always recommend that friends come up with some specific ideas for how they could help, most of the world doesn’t read my blog. So, unfortunately, you will have to do some thinking about your supportive connections.
Take a couple of days to do this
Do life as it is right now. From the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, think about all the needs your family has. Write them all down.
- Are there rides that you need to coordinate or appointments for your kids?
- Do you have errands to run? Do you need groceries or prescriptions picked up? Now, you can do your shopping online and have someone just pick the items up.
- What about meals?
- Is there a honey-do list with some items that need doing? What needs to be repaired in your house? You don’t want to let these things become a bigger problem later on.
- Would it help to have one of your supportive connections take the kids for a few hours? This could get them out of the house and get their minds off of what’s happening.
- Do you need some respite time? You might need to just take a nap or go get a massage.
Once you have all of these ideas written down, share them with your supportive connections on your Caring Bridge or social media site. Keep the list with you so that if someone asks what you need, you have some options for them. They can choose whatever works with their schedule and skill set.
If you can’t come up with an idea of how they can help and they tell you to let them know if you need anything, write their name down. I suggest keeping their name and phone number on your contact list so that when a need arises, you can give them a call. One of my friends terms this “calling their bluff.” If they offer, take them up on it.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?
How do you make supportive conections? I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!
ABOUT HEATHER ERICKSON
In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com
Also, put your memories into words with The Memory Maker’s Journal.
I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker
 Dr. Jeffrey Kendall, PsyD. LP, Director of Oncology Support Services at the University of Minnesota.
 Facing the Fight Alone. McMillan Cancer Support, 2013, pp. 1–15, Facing the Fight Alone.