10 Ways to Become Infected with ‘Helper’s High’, Even After a Cancer Diagnosis

Did you know that giving and volunteering stimulate the reward center in the brain, releasing endorphins and creating what is known as helper’s high?

And like other highs, this one is also addictive.

Photo Credit : Unsplash

My husband, Gary, volunteered at Shepherd’s House, a men’s rescue mission, three mornings a week for two or three years while living with terminal cancer. After he’d been there a few months, he asked me: “Would you mind if I invite some of the guys to go hiking with us this weekend?” Of course not. 

And then a while later, “What if we took one guy at a time out to dinner? They choose the restaurant?” Great idea. And over dinner — which was usually at Jake’s Diner where man-sized portions of down-home food were served — we learned more of each man’s story.

Part of living well, I think, includes getting involved in the stories of other people. Because that requires we remove our attention from our sorrows loss pain brokenness, and focus on the hardships of others.

In an article entitled, “Wanna Give? This Is Your Brain on a ‘Helper’s High,” Scott Bea, PsyD, cites studies that indicate giving and volunteering is good for the contributor’s physical and mental health in the following ways: 

  • Lower blood pressure 
  • Increased self-esteem 
  • Less depression 
  • Lower stress levels 
  • Longer life
  • Greater happiness

Here are 10 areas in which we can become infected with helper’s high:

1. Reading, teaching, tutoring

Are you good on a computer? Do you speak English without butchering it too terribly? Consider teaching basic computer skills to immigrants, or help them navigate our bewildering American systems.

In a previous life, I was on staff at a boarding high school for teenagers from around the world. After learning about the SMART Reading program, I recruited a number of our teen-aged students to volunteer once a week listening to elementary-school-aged children read. I went along once to grab some photos for the alumni/parent newsletter, and it was quite heart-tugging to see the unbridled burbling enthusiasm of the young kids when their teenaged reading partners showed up.

My friends, Tom and Bina, after dealing with a cancer diagnosis, traveled to China and Mongolia to teach English as a second language. I loved receiving periodic e-newsletters with photos that detailed their epic adventures.

2. Hospital, medical volunteerism

Two of my friends, Gary & Carolyn, cancer survivor and caregiver, have collectively volunteered 6,000 hours — and still counting — at our local hospital. And another friend, Rich, has tallied up nearly 10,700 hours in the cancer center at the same hospital.

This from Rich:

“I have learned so much from the patients; the grace and dignity they display in the face of their diagnoses and treatment is awe-inspiring.”

I suspect volunteers everywhere would agree that the benefit to them far outweighs any time, effort, inconvenience, expense.

3. Food services

Passionate about food? How about volunteering in a soup kitchen or organizing a canned food drive? The local women’s shelter in our area invites people in to cook and teach cooking to the residents.

Rick and his wife were planning a big trip to New York City when his Gail was diagnosed with recurring cancer. Rick approached me at the cancer center where I was on staff: We’d like to donate what we would have spent on our trip. What do you have going on? He and Gail contributed $5000 to get a new grocery assistance program, Harvest of Hope, off the ground, complete with volunteer shoppers who purchase fresh veggies, fruits, milk, bread, eggs, and cheese to go with the canned goods. I don’t know the exact statistics, but it’s safe to say that hundreds of local families dealing with cancer have received nutritionally-based supplies of groceries.

4. Gardening

Have you ever thought about starting a community garden? Or consider encouraging the neighbor kids to plant and tend and harvest a small crop of their own in your raised beds. You’d not only be raising veggies and fruits; you’d also be raising future gardeners.

5. Animals

A co-worker at the cancer center, Bonnie, fostered feral kittens until they were ready for adoption. Bonnie brought a small covered wagon to work every day filled with a supply of tumbling kittens. On her break, she’d wheel her wagon down the hall to the reception area for any patients who might want some furry feline therapy.

There are a number of ways volunteers can help at animal shelters: caring for and handling the animals, taking them for walks, providing a home.

6. Community building

For the short time I lived in southern California, I went with a group of people to an L.A. housing project where we picked up trash and played with the children on the playground. You might say that one Saturday in a lifetime won’t make that much difference. And you’d be right.

But the group I went with goes back every Saturday. Every Saturday. And when they learn of a specific need in the housing project, they try to meet it. And the help is accepted because relationships and trust have been built in this tough neighborhood.

7. Physical activity, being outdoors

My friend, Gary, a cycling enthusiast and owner of a local bike shop, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2003. After recovering from surgery that only removed half the tumor, he established a multi-distance cycling event, Tour des Chutes. To date, Gary’s efforts and the efforts of hundreds of people who rallied around him, have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for local cancer services. 

8. Artistic creativity

Not passionate about cycling but you’ve got some pretty mean knitting skills? What about knitting prayer shawls for chemo patients, or caps for newborns? My fellow knitting crew member, Barbara, cancer survivor, has knitted more than 310 hats for newborns, which are distributed to new parents at our local hospital.

Another friend, Maury, cancer caregiver and water colorist, facilitated a number of classes for cancer survivors. After an hour-and-a-half session, participants—many of whom had never painted before—walked out of class with newly-discovered talents and beaming faces.

9. Elderly, shut-ins, hospice patients

Gary and I were the recipients of amazingness through hospice care as he was slipping away from me. I am now trained to provide respite care for caregivers — sitting with their loved one while they run errands or meet a friend for lunch. It’s soul-satisfying to volunteer for a stellar organization in whose mission you believe.

10. Rescue missions, the homeless

About a year and a half ago, Shepherd’s House opened a women’s and children’s shelter in town. Because of Hubby’s volunteer work at the men’s house and because the mission is run by people I have a high regard for, I was naturally drawn to the women’s house.

A friend and I host opportunities for outings with the women every other Friday — walking and journaling, visiting a local nursery to pick out plantings for their greenhouse, hiking and picnicking. 

Consider this:

“Well, that was a waste of an hour.” Said no volunteer. Ever.

Which begs the question: What are you passionate about, and can you find a way to use your skills to benefit others?

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