Erica’s Cancer Journey: Hacks that help versus hinder


Here’s the thing: Don’t believe it when my husband says I’m not “helpful” when I make my way into the group photo with the dinner party’s freshly baked epic Italian timpano dish, a meal that is super-delizioso but apparently also very complicated and time-consuming to make. I wouldn’t know about the prep, since I try to stay out of the fray and provide another important dinner-party component – arguably the most important part: social glue. Um, caro mio, there is no party without social glue. And you are very welcome for those good vibes around the table as you chow down!

I feel valued if we focus on the What, instead of the How. The What is the intention – in this case, a fun gathering. The How is the process, and results may vary. Success comes from aligning our What and being flexible about the How in responding to the person or situation we’re called to. Our dinner-party What is to enjoy time with friends. Our Hows go in different directions: I jaw-jack in the other room; he co-engineers the huge doughball. He cannot understand why I insert myself in the timpano victory picture when I don’t spend any time making it, unable to view it as just a different How.

My cancer journey offers me numerous opportunities to learn how better to support myself and others, and I’m discovering that successful help revolves around communication to determine the What, and to get out of the way of the other person’s How. It’s about going a step beyond a good intention and evolving into a truly helpful deed for the other person.


When you and I spend time together, I tend to move slower than you do, but I do not always require assistance. In your rush to carry my totebags out of politeness, you don’t realize how disoriented I get about where my phone and pillbox are, and a moving target just makes things harder for me. Carrying my own gear is also one small way to work my weakened muscles and practice coordination. Your What in this case is your caring. Your How works best for me by asking or gesturing if I’d like some assistance. Please do not assume that your help, as you see it, is better, or always a help to me, if only I “went with your approach.”

When we embark on a long car ride together, and you remark about making good time, I suddenly feel badly because, while we both want to get where we’re going, I need to stop, possibly multiple times, to pee and stretch my legs. It all depends on my current treatment regimen. Do you see how, ultimately, your speedy How doesn’t matter to me? You envision this help as manifesting in a particular way. Our What is to arrive at our destination. Let go of your How. We’ll get there when we get there. No records to break; no feelings are hurt.

My friend Linda uses a wheelchair. She describes kind and greatly appreciated offers for assistance, such as at a buffet: “But know that I need to make my own food choices. Don’t assume I necessarily like the same food you do.” A few questions before heading up to the salad bar is all it takes to move from well-meaning guesswork that misses the mark to what she actually needs. Or, how about this one? “In bathrooms, please ask what I need, but allow me to maintain my privacy. Getting on the toilet is easier than getting off. Grab bars aren’t always helpful.” Communication, communication, communication!

On a larger scale, charities can be prone to discerning a mission without actually consulting the intended recipients, too. Journalist Amy Costello shares, “We think that by simply giving people things that we enjoy – like soccer balls or shoes – that we are somehow doing good. And I think that we really need to start questioning that a lot more, and figuring out is there something we can do that is a lot more effective? [Are] consumer products what an impoverished community needs?” Costello wants companies to ask the community themselves about support they’re seeking, and to listen to people’s requests. “Partnership,” she says, “and giving communities access to markets, will do much more to lift individuals out of poverty and help them improve their own lives.” Linda sums it up well: “Just ask, I’m happy to tell you what I need.”

Head On and Heart Strong!

Love, Erica

Kids’ Almanac columnist Erica Chase-Salerno was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in the Summer of 2015. To read more about her experience, visit