“I Googled ‘what to do when your best friend has cancer’ but that didn’t give me answers,” asked my best friend the other day. “What can I do for you?”
We were on the phone, 200 miles apart, and she sounded sad, the kind of sad that comes from not knowing how to make life better for someone you care about. As much as I wanted to joke that the solution was a bowl of chicken soup and a get-well card, I knew that wasn’t it. I need more – more than she can do – though she could make a difference.
“Well, you can call me, like you’re doing now,” I said. “I always love talking to you.” I went on with other ideas, before ending with. “Maybe I should write a blog post about this.”
“Yes,” she replied, relief in her voice. “That would be helpful.”
So, for my dear friend, and for everyone else wondering what to do when your best friend – or any of your friends, or your neighbor, or your relative – has cancer, this is for you.
(I’ll pause here to note that (a) I am not a therapist or physician and (b) these ideas are offered from my personal experience as a caregiver and patient. For more resources, consult the American Cancer Society or a health care professional.)
First, know that there’s no one thing that’s right for every person. There’s no step-by-step guide for what you absolutely should do when someone you care about is sick. The appropriate response for each person – and each illness – differs. But there are three ideas I can offer up that you may find helpful.
- Stay connected.
When I was a teenager, “St. Elmo’s Fire” was released in US movie theatres; I must have seen it a dozen times, fueling a crush on Rob Lowe and a memorization of the entire film soundtrack. One of the scenes I remember clearly, even though it’s been years since I last saw the movie, was when one of the main characters brings a friend home for family dinner. She explains that her mother doesn’t say words out loud that she finds horrible:
I thought about that scene when my parents were each diagnosed with cancer, and again, I was reminded of it when my news came through. It makes me laugh; it’s supposed to after all. As with all humor, truth lies at its core: cancer is scary and it makes people uncomfortable. They don’t even want to say the word. They don’t know how to react or what to say. And, that’s okay. It really is.
The key is to not disappear.
This has happened to everyone I know who has had cancer or another complicated illness, my parents included. People you thought of as good friends, people you could depend upon, are suddenly no shows. They don’t call, write, or reach out. They remove themselves from your life completely. They do so, I assume, because the news is too much for them to handle. Perhaps they’ve had experience with cancer before, and can’t bear to witness you go through treatment. Or, perhaps they are nervous they’d say the wrong thing, so they shut down. You notice the absence in your life, as you would with the ending of any friendship, and you’re saddened by it. It hurts.
My advice is to be there for your friend. You don’t have to be the one to go with your friend to chemotherapy or wig shopping. You don’t even have to know all of the details of her treatment plan. But if you care about that person – if she is important to you – you owe it to her – and to yourself – to offer your support in whatever way you can. At the very least, send a card or email. If the recipient is like me, the card will go on the top of the piano, or on the kitchen windowsill, where it can be seen each day, a little reminder that people are sending good wishes. And, that helps.
- Be patient.
After I published my post announcing my cancer diagnosis, my email and Facebook exploded with messages. I heard from friends and colleagues in Australia, Japan, Canada, and around the corner. Friends I haven’t seen in more than a decade reached out, as well as friends I just saw at school drop off. I heard from a colleague in another time zone who gave me his cell number and said to call anytime; he’s an oncologist and offered to translate the medical jargon that’s now become part of my daily existence. My mom’s friends sent Mass cards, my office sent food and flowers, and many, many, many friends wrote to tell me they are rooting for me. I appreciate all of it. I am humbled by all of the affection.
I’m also overwhelmed by it.
I’ve heard this from other people going through cancer treatment. You want that love and support – it’s the light during dark days – but the challenge of accepting it is the expectation to give something in return. Most often, that expectation is the sharing of information or reassurances that everything is going to be okay. It’s tiring to answer all of the questions over and over, and to buoy people up when you’re looking for your own life raft. So much of illness is isolating and lonely; you’re eager for all the humanity you can grab on to, but the dual challenges of facing treatment while also getting through the day make keeping those connections difficult.
My advice is be understanding when your friend who is going through treatment doesn’t call you back right away or if your text goes unanswered. Your overture is appreciated – oh, so very much – but time is different now, and your friend may need space and a bit more flexibility to respond and to be present in your relationship.
I’ve already seen this happen to me. Last week, a friend, who is a breast cancer survivor herself, asked me to coffee. Her invitation sat unanswered in my email inbox, despite my affection for her and my desire for the get together. I felt well enough; I couldn’t, however, rally for the gathering. When I saw her a few days later at our kids’ sports event, I felt bad.
“I’m sorry I didn’t respond to your email,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she answered, looking me right in the eye. “I’ll keep asking.”
Yes, I sighed inside, please do.
- Offer your help.
I can hear you now: Okay, Kimberly, but what can I do? A card, email, text – that’s fine. But how can I really be helpful to my friend? How can I make her daily life easier?
This depends upon you. Where do you excel? What is a meaningful way for you to be there for your friend? Only you know that, of course, but here are some suggestions:
- Food – Make your friend dinner. Deliver it at mealtime, or make it freezer-ready for a day in the future when she can’t fathom the idea of boiling water. Fill up your friend’s freezer with staples, or go grocery shopping for her. Drop off cookies from her favorite bakery on her front porch, or a bottle of wine you know she loves.
- Tasks – Volunteer to coordinate meal delivery for the duration of your friend’s treatment, or arrange transportation to doctor’s appointments. Go with her to chemotherapy or medical appointments to help her take notes. Send a cleaning crew to her home, or pick up the dry cleaning.
- Distractions – Send her books to read, or recommend movies to watch. Here, I’ve been lucky. My friends know I love to read, and consequently have sent paperbacks to my home and eBooks to my Kindle. Others have recommended additions to my Goodreads list, or bought me magazines. Before I had surgery, eight of my coworkers, in the sweetest of gestures, gave me a container filled with slips of paper listing television shows and podcasts they enjoyed in the hopes these ideas would keep me inspired during my recovery. All of these efforts are special because they demonstrate people are thinking of what I would like and what would help me feel a bit more like myself. That makes a difference.
Also, don’t underestimate the benefit of care packages: if you live far away from your friend, making getting involved in the day-to-day hard, consider sending her something that could help with the discomfort, such as cozy socks or new pajamas. Or, maybe something fun for your friend’s family to do together, like a puzzle or board game.
My advice is to offer help that meets your friend’s needs and personality and your skill set. Ask your friend where you can step in. If she is out of ideas, make a suggestion about what you’d like to do. Don’t get upset if your offer isn’t right at that time. For example, I’ve had a number of people offer to take my kids for a weekend afternoon, so I can rest. I appreciate that, I do! But the truth is my kids are a source of strength for me, and I want time with them. Further on in chemo, I may feel different; right now, we need normalcy and time together.
In the end, the best thing you can do is be a friend. Or find a cure for a cancer. The husband of a friend of mine does groundbreaking oncology research so to him I can say, “Hey, work harder on that cancer cure!” To the rest, I say stay connected, be patient, and offer your help in a way that works for you. It will help; I know it will.