I’ve always been the dependable one. The responsible one. The one everyone relies on to get the job done, to take care of things, to solve the problems. The one always in control.
Then, in July 2016, at age 37, I found a lump in my left breast. After an ultrasound and biopsy, I received a diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma — breast cancer.
Soon after, I also learned that I carry the BRCA2 gene mutation, which may have caused my cancer to occur at such a young age and puts me at a higher risk for ovarian cancer as well. Suddenly, my carefully controlled life turned upside down.
On top of my demanding career as a magazine editor, as well as my role as a wife and the mother of a toddler, I could now add cancer patient and all that the moniker entailed: chemotherapy, surgery, and a seemingly endless schedule of doctor’s appointments.
As I embarked on the first round of chemo — a dose-dense cocktail of two drugs, one of which was referred to colloquially as the “red devil” due to its color and propensity for damage — I approached treatment exactly as I did everything else.
“Full-speed ahead,” I thought. “I only need a couple of days off work, and I can parent like I normally do. I’m good. I can handle this.”
Until I couldn’t. Despite my fiercely independent streak, I’ve since learned to accept that sometimes I need to give myself a break and rely on people around me whom I trust to carry me through.
After my first “red devil” infusion, I took a long weekend off and planned to work from home the following Monday. I knew this first round of chemo was an opportunity to take it easy. In fact, my boss and co-workers urged me to do that.
But I didn’t want to let anyone down.
Rationally, I knew my co-workers wouldn’t feel let down by my inability to work. But not being able to fulfill my responsibilities made me feel like I was failing them.
On Monday morning, I settled onto the couch and fired up my laptop. The first thing on my list was reworking a press release for the magazine’s website. This was a fairly easy task, so I figured it would be a good place to start.
As I read the words, they seemed to jumble. I deleted and rearranged, trying feverishly to make sense of them. No matter what I did, the sentences wouldn’t form correctly.
I felt as though I was walking through a thick fog, trying to grasp words that seemed beyond my reach.
In that moment, I realized not only that I couldn’t do it all, but that I shouldn’t try. I needed help.
Brain fog is a common side effect of chemotherapy. I had no idea how debilitating it could be until I experienced it myself.
I let my boss know I needed more time off from work to recover from my chemo infusions, and I would also need help covering my job while I recuperated.
The chemo brain fog, along with the accompanying fatigue and nausea, also made it nearly impossible to parent my child the way I usually would. My side effects tended to peak in the evening, right in the midst of the hubbub of bath time and putting a sleep-resistant child to bed.
I decided to accept offers from family to babysit my son in the days following my treatments.
I accepted that help again following my bilateral mastectomy, a procedure that left me with searing pain and limited mobility for weeks.
Once again, I had to lean on my husband, family, and co-workers to do everything for me, from driving me to doctor’s appointments to helping me maintain my surgical drains.
During my breast cancer treatment, I struggled with relinquishing control over certain aspects of my life. As a chronic overachiever, I felt like I was the best person to get the job done.
And asking for help on a task I’d typically have no trouble completing made me feel as though I was imposing on others, failing to live up to the standards I’d set for myself.
Once I finally asked for and accepted help, I felt relief. Admitting that I needed to focus on my health and step away from some daily responsibilities felt surprisingly freeing.
Chemo and surgery left me fatigued. Accepting help meant I could actually get the rest I needed. And that rest helped my body recover — both physically and mentally — from the effects of the brutal treatment I’d just completed.
I also realized accepting the assistance of my loved ones allowed them to feel useful in a situation where they felt helpless.
They didn’t see babysitting my son or finishing a work project in my absence as a burden. They saw it as a chance to help make this terrible situation better for me and my family.
In the 5 years since my breast cancer treatment and recovery, I’ve returned to my role as the dependable one. At the same time, I live with the humbling knowledge that I’m not indispensable.
When I get overwhelmed, I know that not only is it OK for me to ask for and accept help, it’s often the best thing I can do.
If you’re struggling to accept help after a breast cancer diagnosis, try these tips:
Recognize that you do not have to do it all
No one expects you to handle everything, especially when you’re sick or recovering from treatment. And accepting help will ultimately allow you to get back on your feet sooner.
Do not assume you’re imposing on others
One of the toughest things for me about asking for help was feeling like I was being a burden to others. But people wouldn’t offer assistance if they didn’t actually want to help. It gives them a way to feel useful, as well.
Find ways less vocal loved ones can help
While some people jumped in right away to offer help, some of my family and friends hung back a bit so as not to overwhelm me. But I knew they wanted to help, so I’d ask them to do things like drive me to appointments. They were so happy to step up.
Know that taking time off from work is your right
I was really lucky to have an employer that fully supported me through treatment and allowed me to take the time I needed. Your employer may be just as accommodating. If not, know that you have rights at work.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with cancer that enable them to do their jobs. Among other guarantees, this includes:
- leave for doctor’s appointments or treatments
- a modified work schedule
- redistribution of tasks to co-workers
- permission to work at home
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also requires businesses with at least 50 employees to provide seriously ill employees 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave within a 12-month period.
The law has a few other rules, though. You can learn more at the U.S. Department of Labor website.
Remember all the help you’ve offered
Think about all the times you brought meals to a sick friend or stayed late to assist a co-worker. That good feeling you got from helping others is exactly what others will feel when helping you. Accepting their help brings that selfless karma full-circle.
Cancer taught me a lot of lessons. While this may have been one of the hardest for me to learn, the power of asking for and accepting help is a lesson I will never forget.