By in Relationships

How to Support a Friend with Cancer

Over six years ago I wrote an article which talked about how someone could support a friend of loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer. I had just finished with breast reconstruction, after a mastectomy, and was released by the doctors. It was now time to get on with life! Never did I expect that three years later I would be diagnosed with another type of cancer.

So many I have known have stuck by my side, or many have been support to others who have faced a cancer diagnosis. These caregivers ride an emotional roller coaster along with the patient who has physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges. Acting as a caregiver can be as challenging in some ways as that of the patient.

The best support is offered when the caregiver can do for the patient without attempting to control the situation. It does not work if the caregiver enters into an victim-hero relationship either.

Here are some ideas of ways to support others with cancer

Recognize their struggle. Well-meaning cheerleaders who want to keep things light and happy are certainly trying to do their part to keep a smile on your face. But smiley face buttons, and a recording of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" truly will do more to annoy than help! Sometimes we just need to acknowledge that the challenges and pain faced are tough.

Remember you are the friend, not the doctor. Avoid giving medical advice. What they need is for you to be a friend, a listener, a shoulder to cry on. And never think that Dr. McDreamy's patient from latest episode of "Grey's Anatomy" has any similarity to your friend's case!

Send a card. A real one. One that can be opened, touched, and read. It's time to go back to the olden days when we didn't have computers and e-cards. Spring for the postage stamp. The post office needs to stay in business, and your friend will appreciate the extra thought and time you took to pen a heartfelt note.

Call before you come over. And do not be offended if your friend does not want company at that moment. Surgeries and treatment have this ugly way of presenting themselves at the most inopportune of times, so do not just drop by unannounced. You might just find yourself getting that medical lesson on the disposal of hazardous medical waste that you were not ready to learn!

Make dinner and drop it off. This is a reminder that there ARE some free meals in this life! But do not invite yourself to dinner, just because you want to visit unless you are specifically asked to visit or share the meal. Drop it off and leave.

Be observant. Do not bombard your friend with questions about what help they might need. Chances are they will not give you an answer because they will be too embarrassed to ask you to wash their stinky socks or clean the bathroom! So, if you see that something needs done, be nonchalant about doing it. Pick up the overflowing laundry basket and let them know you will be back with it clean and folded tomorrow. It might even be eye-opening for you that you are not the only one who wears granny panties!

Offer to run errands. If you are going to the market, then call your friend and offer to pick up milk or eggs. Ask if there are any prescriptions to be dropped off at the pharmacy, or video rentals returned. Remember to revert back to the "call first" rule, or you may just have the videos thrown at you, even though you are trying to be helpful.

Don't forget the family. Family members who act as caregivers do not have a choice, but to deal with what is going on with your friend. They may be a spouse who still has to work, or children who are going to school. Each of them is concerned about their loved one, and the stress is doubled trying to take care of someone and still manage their own lives. Help to alleviate some of their stresses by offering to act as chauffeur to soccer practice, or medical appointments. Invite the kids to a movie when you take your own. Don a silly costume, buy some goofy glasses and hats, and when you pick them up, everyone gets their own to wear to the pizza place. Laughter will help make facing the challenges easier.

Whatever you do for someone going through the challenge of cancer will be appreciated as long as you do it with love, respect, and mindfulness. Being aware of these things will make your friendship, time, and efforts welcomed and treasured gifts.

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© Copyright 2015- Coral Levang - All Rights Reserved

Original written and published on Yahoo! Voices in 2009. Republished May 22, 2013 on Bubblews, but later removed by author. Adapted and resubmitted here at Persona Paper.

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Feisty56 wrote on September 2, 2015, 8:06 PM

This is a wonderful list of ways to help a friend with cancer, or any other life-threatening condition. I would add that in conversations with your friend who has cancer, don't bring up your Uncle Larry who had cancer ten years ago and explain everything he ensured. Don't mention the neighbor who has cancer and is experiencing unpleasant issues. This isn't a time for one-up-manship. Truly listen to what your friend is saying, being observant for body language, etc. You can converse about many other things when your friend has had his/her opportunity to be heard by a caring person -- you.

I was surprised to read that you suggest a person who delivers a cooked meal to a friend with cancer plan to drop off the meal unless invited by the friend to stay. I think this is something more of an individual decision, based on circumstances, closeness of friendship, and of course, the condition of the friend. Some people with such illnesses become socially isolated and may be too shy to ask someone to stay and eat with him/her. If you're a close friend or relative of that person, I think you'll be able to see that instinctively. What say you, CoralLevang ?

CoralLevang wrote on September 2, 2015, 8:59 PM

Feisty56 Of course, it would always depend on the relationship. What I am trying to convey is that we should not assume that the person wants company, and to make the meal to drop it over, and allow them (the patient) to make the decision to offer for them to stay.

Feisty56 wrote on September 2, 2015, 9:29 PM

Mea culpa : )

cheri wrote on September 2, 2015, 10:13 PM

I should ahve read this earlier. I lost a friend because of cancer but she never told us about it, not even her family.

wolfgirl569 wrote on September 2, 2015, 11:07 PM

Those are all very good ways to help. I love the card one most. Everybody just wants to post to media anymore and that is so impersonal no matter how hard they try for it not to be.

Paulie wrote on September 3, 2015, 12:28 AM

This is a super article about supporting someone with cancer. It is necessary to be a true caregiver. Laughter in the right situations is also important. I just can't forget Robin Williams in the movie "Patch Adams."

CoralLevang wrote on September 3, 2015, 7:06 AM

cheri Most of us won't tell anyone. We don't know what we need. Please do not feel guilty, my friend. We all are in a learning process. It is in these times we get to learn.

In my own case, I can only tell you these are things I've learned/noticed with others going through it, or that were either done for me, or not. I can tell you how much it meant to me when I got a card in the mail. Or how annoying it was when someone had to tell me about the cancer that (so-and-so) had and compare mine to the other, as Feisty56 shared not to do.

What I found most, however, is that so many people walk away. They stop calling. They disappear. They cannot handle it. And then, we have to grieve the loss of a friendship, because of someone fearing they will lose us and push away. Learning about who are truly with us for the long haul is crazier than the cancer itself.

I am sure that your friend knew that you loved her. And it sounds like she was a strong woman. *hugs*

CoralLevang wrote on September 3, 2015, 7:09 AM

wolfgirl569 It is one of the reasons I left is assumed that it is notification enough. In this last year, I have realized who or how much friendship means or not. FB is the easy way out and, although great in theory, does not replace the time spent in building strong relationships.

CoralLevang wrote on September 3, 2015, 7:13 AM

I saw "Patch Adams" the day it came out--Christmas Day. I ended up seeing that movie the first two weeks it hit the theatres FIVE times. I've watched it equally as many times since. It is one of my favorite movies of all times, by one of my favorite actors.

His tragic suicide reminds us all of just how lonely those who are out trying to do for others can be. He felt isolated from the world so much that either he did not feel he could show his pain to others to not burden them, or when he did, they didn't take him seriously. He was not alone, but he was lonely.

wolfgirl569 wrote on September 3, 2015, 9:53 AM

It is in the way people use it. I still make phone calls instead of texting also. But know many who almost never talk using their phone.The same with fb, it is easier to hide behind a screen than go face to face with someone

CoralLevang wrote on September 3, 2015, 10:05 AM

You just reminded me of my soon-to-be son-in-law. Easy to hide behind a keyboard than show his face. Credibility gets thrown out when he appears and you can watch behaviors. Just because he says/writes something as true, doesn't mean it is. His actions dispel the good points that he makes from the keyboard.

wolfgirl569 wrote on September 3, 2015, 10:15 AM

Yes and I simply remove those types from my facebook. That is my own little world that I control MINE MINE MINE, I keep telling people that my page the same as the rules in my home are not a democracy

CoralLevang wrote on September 3, 2015, 10:41 AM

I may start a new page someday, but not for now.

BarbRad wrote on September 5, 2015, 12:25 AM

That is very helpful. I was my mom's chief caregiver and you are right on. Mom was an easy patient. My husband's mom was much harder. I think emotional support is very important. That's why I don't think any topic the person wants to talk about should be taboo. Some patients may want to talk about death and it's not good to try to steer them away if they want to discuss their fears or aspects of getting affairs in order.

Dawnwriter wrote on September 5, 2015, 4:01 PM

This is an excellent article. I am sorry that you had to go through such an ordeal but I am sure your fighting spirit is an inspiration for many people.

CoralLevang wrote on September 5, 2015, 5:14 PM

In this country, BarbRad , or our culture, we fear the conversation. Perhaps, this comes from the Peter Pan idea that we can live forever?

CoralLevang wrote on September 5, 2015, 5:15 PM

Thank you, Dawnwriter . Life is an ordeal, even without illness. I am simply one who thinks we should all live our lives, in spite of it all. Thank you for your very kind words.

BarbRad wrote on September 6, 2015, 5:36 PM

I think some people fear that just talking about something makes it somehow more real when they would rather forget it. Death can be the elephant in the room of a terminally ill patient. Yet the patient sometimes does not want to cross the dark valley alone and would like a friend to talk to about the journey along the way.

allen0187 wrote on September 7, 2015, 7:32 PM

Very well-written post! The pointers given are practical and relevant.

Thanks for this.

CoralLevang wrote on September 7, 2015, 8:40 PM

Thank you allen0187 . Too many seem to be getting this diagnosis. It or others, we still need our support system.

PriscillaKing wrote on September 13, 2015, 6:27 PM

Mushy mushy, tears-in-eyes--does anybody who read this post need that trigger alert? Why I lose some credibility with right-wingers by persisting in liking some left-wingers...when my husband was just starting to lose mental function and had to be watched, a radical left-wing friend came out a few times, took us to the grocery store, and waited with him in the car.

CoralLevang wrote on September 13, 2015, 7:06 PM

PriscillaKing I'm not sure if this was a thumbs up or down. LOL did you just call me a "left-winger"?? LOL