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Asking Others for Help When Dealing with Cancer or Critical Illness

5 min read

Asking Others for Help When Dealing with Cancer or Critical Illness

By: Jennifer Cashwell, MSN, FNP-BC

A critical illness diagnosis like cancer can command many quick changes to your daily routine. After receiving a cancer diagnosis, you will need to coordinate receiving treatment and doctor’s appointments based on your recommended treatment plan. Time must be carved out for tests, procedures, treatments, follow-up appointments, and more. After the initial information sinks in, your thoughts may turn to more practical concerns: 

Who will drive me to appointments? Who will pick my children up from school if I am at an appointment or feeling ill? How will I ensure my family has meals to eat? How will I get through this?

Although it may seem obvious, adjusting to the new normal with cancer includes asking others for help to navigate your journey successfully. Social support is essential throughout our lives, especially when experiencing a critical illness such as cancer. You will need help, and your loved ones want to be helpful. Then why is it so hard to ask for help? 

Why Is It Hard to Ask for Help? 

Asking for help is not easy, especially if you normally manage your household or thrive being independent. Perhaps you are struggling to admit your health situation has changed, and understandably, you want to remain in control of your life as much as possible. You may fear being rejected if you ask for help or worry that asking for assistance will make you appear weak or incompetent. You may stress your request will burden or inconvenience others. You may be in denial about needing help at all. 

Asking for help may feel uncomfortable at first, but the truth is, you are going to need it. You may be surprised at how many people will be happy there is something they can do to help. 

Ways to Make Asking for Help Easier

Here is some advice from our cancer specialists at Virginia Oncology Associates (VOA) on how to ask for help when you need it most. It may make you feel vulnerable, but be forthcoming about your symptoms and needs.

Start With Your Partner or Closest Loved Ones, but Expand Your Support Group

If you live with a spouse or a loved one, they may be the main person to provide help and support. After a cancer diagnosis, the responsibilities you each normally manage may need to be reevaluated. These responsibilities can include earning income, childcare, household chores, preparing meals, or other daily tasks. 

If you feel like there is too much on your plate, talk to your partner to make sure they understand your needs and what you feel you can no longer handle alone. If the responsibilities are too overwhelming, try asking family and friends for help.

If you have older children, consider asking them to take on some of the task load. You may find it hard to openly discuss how you’re feeling, but older children and young adults are likely aware of cancer’s seriousness and may be looking for ways to help. For conversation tips for parents newly diagnosed with cancer, read our blog: Talking to Your Children About Your Cancer Diagnosis. 

Resist the urge to only ask your partner and a few close loved ones for help. Broadening your support group will allow you to spend more time with many people who love you.

Seek Help Through Local Support Groups

Reach out to support groups. Religious, community, online, or illness-specific support groups can be a valuable source of help and comfort. Learn more about the Cancer Resources available through Virginia Oncology Associates and other organizations. 

Prioritize and Delegate Your Tasks 

Ask for specific things. Do you need help with transportation to appointments, childcare, cooking, grocery shopping, etc.? Think about who in your support system is best suited to help with specific tasks. For example, if your friend loves cooking, they might be interested in helping you with meal prep for the week. Or, if you have a personal relationship with a nurse, you might want to ask if they can join your doctor’s appointments.

Assigning tasks to different people is important so you don’t depend too much on one person or fail to include other people who want to help. 

We recommend creating a calendar with your appointments and detailed needs so you will be prepared to let people know how they can help you when they ask. 

When Your Loved Ones Offer Help, Accept It

Challenge yourself by saying, “Yes,” and accept a few offers for help you normally might not.

Don’t wait for people to offer to help. It is hard for others to anticipate what you may need, especially if they do not know what you are going through. People may be unsure if it is their place to help and may worry about invading your privacy. A direct request can break down these barriers. 

Your caregivers are an essential part of your cancer or illness journey. Encourage your caregivers to ask for help and utilize the tips and resources listed in this blog. There are many people in your life prepared and ready to assist you, and your caregivers should feel empowered and encouraged to ask for support as well.

Use Online Resources to Organize Your Needs

There are many online tools that can help patients and caregivers organize their needs and facilitate the volunteer process.

  • Google Calendar. You can create a calendar to share with a group of invited people, where they can sign up to help with specific needs. The calendar can be set up to send reminders to volunteers and can automatically add in appointments that are scheduled by email.
  • Lotsa Helping Hands. This site is tailored for caregivers. A “care community” can be created, and items such as meal delivery and medical appointments can be added. Invited participants can then sign up to fulfill specific needs posted. The site also sends reminders to volunteers and allows caregivers to update the entire group on your condition.
  • is an online tool used to organize meal deliveries. Dietary restrictions and the dates/times meals are needed can be entered. The request can then be shared with friends, family, and neighbors.

Giving and receiving help are intuitive human behaviors, and research shows that we tend to underestimate others’ willingness to help. Do not be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Think about how good you feel when you help someone else. Consider that you may be creating that same feeling for another individual who cares about your welfare when you accept their help.

Your Cancer Care Team at Virginia Oncology Associates is Also Here to Help

The staff and physicians at Virginia Oncology Associates are ready to help you and your loved ones through your cancer journey. In addition to our cancer doctors, VOA has a comprehensive support staff, including social workers, nurse navigators, and palliative care providers who are eager to support you along the way. Please reach out to your care team if you need assistance.