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Six Ways To Support A Friend With Cancer

Pennie blogs over at The Accidental Blogger. This post was originally published there.

Your friend has cancer. Every genuine, heartfelt phrase you want to share sounds cliché and the more you delete and rewrite, the more your words become faded Hallmark sentiments. “How can I express to her how I’m feeling?”

Then you ask yourself, “What can I do? Should I call? No, she’s probably flooded with calls, but what if she thinks . . . ? Maybe I’ll pop in to check on her. No, what if her whole family . . . ? I’ll just text. But I need to do something. I’ll bring meals for the family. But what if someone already did?”

6 Ways To Support a Friend with CancerStruggling with these questions after you receive the news is a sign that you are trying hard to be a truly supportive friend. Thoughtful words and gestures are a good beginning. Thoughtful awareness is an excellent delivery vehicle for your words and acts.

Over the past fifteen years, nineteen friends and close acquaintances have faced cancer. Eight died. Geography, level of intimacy, and personal circumstances were factors in the extent of my connection during their treatment and recovery. While my involvement varied greatly, the struggle with words and acts was a constant. No matter how close I am to the person, physically or personally, I want the things that I say and do to make a difference, even if as simple as a fleeting smile.

I ambitiously set out to write a list of dos and don’ts for interacting with a friend who has cancer. After reaching out to friends with cancer stories, I realized the futility of a concrete list. The perfect thing for one friend is the worst for another. What did come from my conversations and ruminations is this list of guidelines, two of which I touched on above, all of which are relevant to caring for friends in any difficult circumstance.

1. Check in.

Let your friend know that you’re thinking about her. If you decide not to call because her lines are flooded or you’re not sure what to say, send a card, an email, or a text. If you’re struggling with the words, let that struggle go and use the words you find. Even a short text that borders on cliché can make a difference to a friend who is going through a tough time.

Keep checking in. Your friend will be flailing through waves of emotions, physical hardships, and practical concerns throughout her treatment and beyond. Even if you’re not one of the primary people taking care of her, check in regularly to let her know you’re thinking of her or to offer help. When treatment is complete, check in some more. The emotional and physical impact of cancer treatments can linger well beyond the last treatment date.

2. Tune in.

Be thoughtful and aware. Each cancer journey is unique. One friend explained: “the most important thing is to remember that every person is different, and we all have different problems/obstacles/challenges, which means there is no single appropriate response.”

Tuning in is listening. If you ask: “How are you feeling?” or “How are you doing?”, listen to the response.

Tuning in is also practicing thoughtful awareness of your friend’s support network, personality, and receptiveness.
If your friend has a family or community support network, communicate with that network so that you’re not duplicating or hindering the efforts of others. If there is no “built-in” support network, team up with other friends to create one.

Your friend’s personality is your guideline for interactions. Is she stoic or does she need a little extra boost? Is she all business or does she enjoy a laugh? A little levity can be helpful, but only if she’s ready for it. During a chemo treatment, the art therapist told my friend, “You’re back! Remember me?” My friend responded no. The therapist asserted, “Yes, you were here last week,” which wasn’t true. After the fourth insistence, I responded, “Well, she’s got that bald thing going on. They all look alike, don’t they?” The art therapist stood stunned. My friend belly-laughed, and she was ready for that.

How communicative is your friend? Is she open to sharing details about her treatment and feelings? Give your friend a chance to open up if she wants, but don’t pry her for details she’s not ready to share.

3. Be specific about what you can do.

Spell out it out. Don’t carelessly toss your friend an extra burden: “Let me know if you need anything.” Specify: “Can I mow your lawn this weekend?” or “I’m available to run errands for you for two hours on Friday.”

Your friend may not know what she needs; even if she does, she may not reach out. Tuning in and being specific can help. I asked two questions in one afternoon:

“Can I get you anything from Costco?”

“No, I’m good.”

Fifteen minutes later:

“I’m at Costco. Do you need any salmon?”

“Yes, that would be great. And can you check to see if they have any LaCroix?”

In the end, my friend requested five things. After tuning in to her habit of responding, “No, I’m good,” I called back with a specific question. This helped her think through and verbalize what she needed.

4. Be a thoughtful visitor.

Don’t pop in. During treatment, your friend may feel weary and not particularly social or presentable. Call ahead, make sure it’s a good time, and specify how long you will stay. “I can visit for fifteen minutes tomorrow if you like. I’ll bring ice cream.”

Don’t linger. Be cognizant of how your friend is feeling when you arrive. She may not be up for the visit after all, or she may be feeling anxious and need the company. One friend explained that the fifteen- to twenty-minute visits from a friend with a listening ear and comfort food were the best.

Don’t react. Avoid: “This is just dreadful!”, “I can’t believe this is happening to you!”, or “This is a piece of cake! You can do it.” On the other hand, be open to and don’t sugarcoat the emotions your friend is feeling. Her fear and anxiety are part of her story. If she wants to share those, listen but don’t try to qualify them.

Don’t give medical advice. Well-intended advice is often annoying, even disturbing. If you have information that might be helpful, don’t discuss it. Simply share the website or the book. It’s not your place to prescribe or recommend treatments. Your friend will discuss those with her doctors.

Don’t vent or ramble about inconsequential events. This can be insulting to the friend you’ve come to visit. Sure, she may want to talk about something other than her cancer, but let the communication flow from your friend to you. If conversation stalls, ask about other things in her life. “How is Timmy doing in school?” “Is Olivia still playing soccer?” Or, just sit and allow the quiet presence of companionship.

5. Remember the primary caregivers.

Reach out to the primary caregiver. Although that spouse, sibling, or friend may have meals, errands, chores, and visitation perfectly coordinated, he or she may need some additional support. Check in to find out and offer specific things you can do.

6. Don’t try to own her cancer.

Respect the boundaries. Friends often rush in to help a sick friend. Don’t let that become a competition or complication. Coordinate your efforts, avoid squabbles and pettiness. What you do for your friend and your struggle to find the right things to say and do are valid, but that story is the sub-plot. This is her cancer story. It’s her cancer. Not yours. Quiet support is often the biggest expression of love.

Thanks to my friends who shared their cancer stories and whose thoughts helped me cobble together some guidelines.

© Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2015
Pennie Nichols

    I have long been an editor, writer for hire, and textbook author. I wrote my way into a freelance career and suddenly I’m here, with socks covered in the bothersome burrs of freelancers and middle-aged women. I am not weary of writing. Every day is a new opportunity to define, invent, and discover myself through words. Words are the tools that help me dig deep into my experiences and relationships, the energy that draws me out into light and understanding. Through sharing my experiences and words, I hope to connect, to share a little light.

    Pennie Nichols

    I have long been an editor, writer for hire, and textbook author. I wrote my way into a freelance career and suddenly I’m here, with socks covered in the bothersome burrs of freelancers and middle-aged women. I am not weary of writing. Every day is a new opportunity to define, invent, and discover myself through words. Words are the tools that help me dig deep into my experiences and relationships, the energy that draws me out into light and understanding. Through sharing my experiences and words, I hope to connect, to share a little light.

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    Cathy Lawdanski

    Thursday 7th of January 2016

    So practical & specific. I like if you don't know what words to use, use the words you have. Thank you.

    Andrea Bates

    Monday 4th of January 2016

    I really loved this post, Pennie. Not that you had enough information to write it - but that you were able to gather it and present it in a way that is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Pennie

    Monday 4th of January 2016

    Thank you for readying.

    Ellen Dolgen

    Monday 4th of January 2016

    Thank you for these wonderful tips. I am printing them and keeping them as a reminder. I especially love the one about not forgetting the caregiver. I think, I often, have accidentally have done that. I shall def be more mindful of that. in the future.

    Pennie

    Monday 4th of January 2016

    I think the caregivers are often overlooked, and it's probably not easy for them to reach out for support when they feel the attention should be focused on the person they're attending.

    Carol Graham

    Monday 4th of January 2016

    I especially liked the tip to "Be Specific.' Thank you for these tips. I am a health coach and have helped many clients with cancer and will use these tips in the future.

    Pennie

    Monday 4th of January 2016

    Thanks, Carol. I just opened "Battered Hope." I look forward to reading

    Haralee

    Monday 4th of January 2016

    These are really great tips. As someone who went through cancer the checking in rings best for me. I wondered why some of y friends disappeared. Did they think cancer was contagious? Calling from Costco made me laugh. For some reason unknown to anyone including my oncologists I lost strength in my hands and some one picking up some laundry detergent or dishwashing powder at Costco would have been wonderful!

    Pennie

    Monday 4th of January 2016

    Thanks. The tips came from women like you. I think friends disappear for a variety of reasons, perhaps the biggest one is fear. Fear of loss, fear of "that could be me," and fear that they will say or do the wrong thing.

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