A support group listens to one of the members speaking

Asking for Help

I was having a conversation with a fellow cancer haver in one of my support groups recently about how hard it is to ask for help. We agreed that it's one of the hardest things to do and that it can get harder the longer we live with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). After I reveled in the feeling that a meeting of the minds and hearts engenders (community, for sure), I started to wonder why that is.

Why is it so hard to ask for help?

I asked around, did some research, and I've come up with some thoughts that might help to answer the question! By no means do I have all the answers, so chime in with what you think.


When I was in law school, we took a diagnostic test that gave us insight into whether we were Type A or Type B. No one was surprised when nearly everyone was strongly Type A and the Type B's were only mildly Type B. For me, I really hate to look needy or helpless because it makes me feel as though I've failed somehow. This gut reaction often stops me from asking for help until I'm pretty desperate and then it might be too late for some to be able to help. I'm not saying that everyone who is Type A doesn't want to ask for help or that everyone who is Type B wants to ask for help, just that who you are affects whether or not you feel comfortable asking.


Habits are hard to break. I'm the eldest of six (6) and I was groomed from an early age to be a caretaker. Some of this is because I'm a woman and in the Midwestern area where I grew up, it was far more likely for a woman to be home with babies rather than working, although my mom set the example that one could work and raise children. I both absorbed and followed this training. Thus, I have always been the strong one, the caretaker, the one taking care of others. When someone who is not used to needing help suddenly does, it's a really hard transition to make and no one around me was ready for that - it was so far outside of who I was that many had a hard time adjusting, add in that I never ask for help unless it's a dire situation, and that's a recipe for miscommunication and failed expectations on all sides.

Compassion fatigue

I've been living with MBC for a little over 3 years and I have ongoing physical symptoms that are often obvious when I can't walk or fall easily. Sometimes the pain that I live with daily is not obvious. My friends who are lucky enough to read the status of "No Evidence of Disease" (NED), especially those who are Triple Negative and are often NED for many years after active treatment, they don't experience the reminders to themselves and others that they are still sick. The people who can help are often tapped out over time or think that there is no need to keep helping when an MBC patient is lucky enough to be NED for a long period of time.

No frame of reference

I've been blessed with healthy friends who want to understand what it is that I go through. They ask questions and adjust their expectations. Some don't. When someone is healthy and has no idea what, for instance, it feels like to have crushing and debilitating fatigue, asking for help can feel daunting. If you consistently have to justify why you need help, then the desire to ask for help gradually (or maybe swiftly) diminishes.


There are some people in my life who probably want to help but their lives are full and complicated and it's hard for them. These people may offer to help and may intend to help, but then when it comes time to show up, they can't or it's so hard that if they do show up, there is complaining at the moment or afterward, or both. For me, that's a clear signal that asking that person for help again is not a good idea. I try to remember that the person had good intentions, just couldn't follow through and I don't rely on that person for help. If they are able to at some point, then it's a happy surprise, but no expectations are dashed.

You don't ask

I'm terrible at asking for help (see #1). Despite the fact that I've been living with MBC for three years, I sometimes don't anticipate when I'll need help and so I don't ask. My dad always used to say "You do not have because you did not ask." I've taken this to heart in negotiations and when I deal with vendors, but I often forget to apply this to myself. It's important to ask for help.

Your ask is vague and/or non-specific

I was in a Zoom support group meeting discussing this topic of asking for help and one suggestion was to give very specific details when you ask so that the wafflers or the people who do want to help but don't know-how, having something specific. This resonated with me and we discussed having a notebook nearby for jotting down ideas on the bad days to then make a list of things that could be helpful for those friends who are looking for something to do. It's always harder for me to think of things I might need again when a crisis has passed.

When you ask

Also in that discussion on Zoom, we discussed the framing of the ask. If we ask for help when we're already frustrated or in pain or just in a bad place, the asking could be interpreted as demanding or it's vague because we are struggling to understand what we need. If we note the times that we need help, make a list of specifics, and then publish or otherwise share that list when things are going well, that can help with the presentation. And people who can't help right now, but could help in a month don't feel bad about not being able to meet a need immediately.

Asking for help is a blessing to others

A fellow cancer haver shared that she is reminded by a family member that "you have to let them earn their grace" when discussing what others might want to do for her. It's a good reminder that by helping someone, you reap rewards yourself. On the flip side, by allowing others to help us, we are actually serving them. If we can view asking for help as giving someone else an opportunity, it feels less like weakness or neediness.

Asking for help = freedom

To ask for help means that a burden is lifted, a task completed, a blessing given, and a need met. The upsides are endless. I am working to reframe asking for help in my mind from weakness, to freedom; freedom in being who I am, and having my experiences as they are, not as someone else wants them to be.

So, there you have it, my ruminations on why it's hard to ask for help. Now it's your turn - why do you have a hard time asking for help? Or, if you are good at it, what recommendations do you have?

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