‘There’s No Question, the Biggest Priority Right Now Is Me’

For Renu, asking for help and support during treatment for breast cancer has been hard, but it’s taught her that by putting herself first, she can be there for the people she loves.

Learning to Put Yourself First During Breast Cancer Treatment

For someone as independent as Renu, needing help from others has been challenging, but she’s learned there’s value in putting herself first

Before being diagnosed with breast cancer, Renuka (Renu) Sathe would describe herself as “basically a working mom … getting my kids to school, a full day of work, come home, prepare meals.” To those who know her, though, that modest self-appraisal falls a little short. “My mom is extremely confident, extremely charismatic,” her son, Dhruv, says.

“She holds herself and others to very high standards, no matter what it comes to — chopping onions or how you deal with people,” adds Renu’s husband, Nikhil.

More to the point, Renu is the picture of compassionate competence. She is deftly able to manage whatever is on her often very full plate, as well as be present to support anyone else who might need help, from loved ones at home to the team she manages at work.

Breast cancer treatment has changed all of that for Renu. Chemotherapy takes as much as it gives. For Renu, one of the most significant losses — aside from her thick, dark hair — has been the high energy she’s always relied on to fuel everything from her personal passions — cooking and singing — to her generosity of time and care for others. The latter has been especially hard, and not just for her.

“After my mom’s first round of chemo, I remember this one time I was walking her to the bathroom, and I actually teared up just seeing how drastic a change it was from, you know, she was so energetic … to not being able to walk herself to the bathroom,” says Dhruv. “But knowing that I was able to help her … was pretty nice.”

As for Nikhil, “He’s doing two to three times what he was able to do, along with managing his own job,” says Renu. “I feel like he’s doing a lot more than any human should be able to do.”

Needing — and accepting — help and support from others has been challenging for Renu, but it’s also been eye opening, as she’s come to accept that, at least for now, she isn’t able to do everything she once could. “There’s no question that the biggest priority right now is me, and not because I’m selfish, [but] because I want to be there for my children,” she explains. “I want to be there for my husband, for my parents.”

The experience has also shed light on what sort of support has been most welcome, especially from friends who, Renu says, want to help but may not know how. Most important is to be as specific as possible, she says. “Instead of saying, ‘Let me know,’ come up with something concrete,” she suggests. “It could be as simple as, ‘Would you like me to bring breakfast for you this day?’”

She says that offering emotional support and encouragement is good, too. “What we [as people going through cancer treatment] need to hear is, ‘Yes, you’re doing this well, but we are here to support you. And if you ever feel down, I’m here for you.’”

3 Ways to Get the Help You Need During Cancer Treatment

  1. Set expectations with your partner and other family members. Explain that you won’t have the energy to keep up with the tasks and activities they’re accustomed to you doing. Work out ways to share chores around the house and dial back shared activities; instead of going out on the weekend, for example, plan a movie night at home.
  2. Before you start treatment, pin down what support you’ll likely need. That way, you can make arrangements ahead of time and also give those who want to help out specific guidance, so they can prepare and plan — especially if you’ll be needing help with logistical things such as childcare and transportation to treatment. If you can, split up some of these tasks among helpers, so no one gets overwhelmed.
  3. When someone offers to help, say yes. It may be hard to relinquish your independence or control, and you may even feel guilty. Keep in mind, the situation is temporary and those who care about you truly want to be there for you. In fact, you can help them by being specific about your needs, such as telling them, “It would be great if you could bring me dinner on Wednesday nights this month.”