When I got home from the hospital after my bilateral mastectomy, my family got me settled on the brown sofa that would become my parking spot through recovery and chemo. The dog, Ruby, immediately came over and put her nose in my face, and, not to be outdone, her sibling rival, Scout, the tuxedo cat who weighs seventeen pounds, jumped up on my flattened chest and kneaded her paws directly on my incisions, because she is an evil genius, the way cats are. Boo, the little white cat, skittered under the sofa, where she stayed for approximately four months. Digby, the cool cat, supervised from the back of the other sofa.

Life resumed around me, and I looked on. I felt like a sizeable rock, parked in the middle of the room, obstructing traffic until everyone adapted to the new traffic pattern. Every once in a while, someone would come sit by me, or on me (e.g. Scout), but otherwise the flow parted around me and continued on its way while I waved weakly at the backs of the departing figures.

This is not to say my family was inattentive. On the contrary, your family has to figure out just how many times they can ask what you need before you threaten to rise zombie-like from the sofa and punch them feebly in the face. At that point, you don’t really need much other than rest and water. So there’s not much they can do once they adjust the pillows, make sure your water glass is within reach, and shoo the cat away one more time

In fact, this absence of need, the want of anything to be done for you, is a potential emotional train wreck that comes with cancer. The people who love you want desperately to make it better. They would do anything to ease your way, even the tiniest bit. This was abundantly clear to me throughout my months of treatment, and I am so very grateful to everyone in my life who did things to help. I tear up even now, just thinking about it.

But the fact is, they can’t take it away from you, and they can’t go through it for you, and they can’t, at a physical level, make it much better. All they can do is sit with you and grieve with you and invite you to be as irrational as you need to be about this stupid thing happening to you.

Some people in your life will understand this: that they can offer nothing more, no matter how much they want to. They do what they can and accept that the little things—sending you a card or a pointless gift, watching dumb TV with you, bringing you food you cannot eat, stopping by for five minutes to check on you—add up to “making it better.” But some struggle, because they are loving, capable people who can usually arrange things to their own satisfaction, and no matter how hard they try, they just can’t pull you single-handedly out of cancer. Seeing you suffer and feeling helpless just about kills them.

As the person with cancer, you have to let them be their own crazy selves, just like you have to be your own crazy self, and accept that their anxiety about their limited ability to help shows how much they love you. You may find yourself letting people do things for you that don’t really need doing, because you hope it will make them feel better. And you may find yourself getting cranky that they can’t see what you really need, which may be nothing at all. It’s a balancing act, like any uncharted territory in life, and everyone involved needs time to figure out how to stay on the tightrope and avoid plunging to the hard ground below. My advice: assume everyone around you is doing their best, and let them love you. You would do the same for them.

In general, I don’t think about cancer in terms of Lessons Learned, because I believe cancer is just stupid and unlucky, not a golden opportunity to improve your life. Nonetheless, during this time, I learned a lesson about accepting help, and accepting the sweet affection and care that so many people poured over me. It doesn’t cure your cancer or lessen your physical pain or keep you from barfing. But sharing the same space, even momentarily, does make that otherwise miserable moment totally worth living.

Photo by Veeo

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Mary Dunnewold is a writer, educator, and lawyer living in Northfield, Minnesota. She has written a memoir about tackling stage three breast cancer three months after a clear mammogram. She can be reached at mdunnewold@gmail.com.