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My Favorite Answer To “What Can I Do”

Cancer introduces challenges to many aspects of our lives. Emotional well-being, of course. Finances, career. And then there’s the mail.

Yes, for someone in cancer treatment, the mailbox can be flat-out scary—a physical representation of new circumstances that are almost certainly frightening. Inside, there are often test results, insurance statements, and, naturally, bills. Making sense of the incoming paperwork can be daunting, and acting on that paperwork is harder still. 

When I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, my mail took an abrupt turn. On many days, not one thing arrived that I was happy to see, while about ten envelopes came that I seriously wished I could ignore.

Enter generous loved ones and the ever-present question: “How can I help?” 

The answer to this question is different for everybody. Many would-be helpers think first of assisting with meals. However, when I was in treatment, my partner was able to do most of the cooking and grocery shopping, for which of course I’m grateful. I live in a major city, so I could take public transit to my scans and my chemo appointments, rather than needing rides. I remember being behind on laundry, but the truth is, I’m often behind on laundry when I’m not in cancer treatment. As in normal times, I caught up on the laundry when I could and tried to accept that I was doing my best. But better mail was something I really wanted help with.

So when loved ones asked what they could do, I told them I’d love for them to mail me cards. And they did not disappoint. I received cards from all over the country and beyond: funny greeting cards, beautiful postcards, cards made by hand. My Aunt Gloria sent me greeting cards from Florida several times a week for months, until my treatment was done. Once in a while, I’d get a package—“little things” chosen to brighten the day. And that was lovely and appreciated, too. Who doesn’t like presents? 

But the cards did so much to ease my heart.

They began to rival even the steady stream of health insurance notifications in frequency, and the sheer volume of them felt so good in comparison. Also, here’s the thing about cards instead of other forms of communication: I couldn’t always answer the phone. I fell behind on responding to emails, and on replying to voicemails, too. But with cards, there was no “falling behind.” I could open them and enjoy them whenever I was able, and then I could reread them. I stored them in a vintage box I found, and sometimes, I reread them still. 

Self-care can take so many forms. The exercise class you make time for, or the one you let yourself miss if you’re just not up for it. Getting the rest you need; making sure to have nourishing and fulfilling meals on hand. I knew that people wanted to hear how I was doing during treatment, and I emailed, texted, and spoke on the phone as often as I could. But I also knew that support I could access on my own schedule—and sometimes, thanks to the steroids I got with chemo, that was in the middle of the night—would bolster me greatly.

Self-care can be identifying help that you need and letting loved ones know what it is, and it can be something as seemingly small as giving your mail an upgrade. To this day, I still hugely appreciate cards in the mail; and knowing how much they can mean, I make sure to send them to others in my life who could use a boost. Sometimes I add in little extras—a snack, a cute accessory; it’s amazing how many enjoyable and affordable possibilities are out there when we have our eyes open for them. But it’s the notes themselves that are the heart of this effort. Funny or flowery, homemade or Hallmark, they send a critical message: You have my support. Whatever you’re facing, you are not facing it alone. 

Writer/editor Pamela Rafalow Grossman focuses mainly on issues related to women’s health, the environment, lost/found communities, and “lesser-known heroes.” Follow her on Twitter at @brooklynpam.

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