Whether a friend or family member is newly diagnosed or in the midst of treatment, they are unlikely to be wowed by vague offers or having to do your thinking for you. They have enough on their mind. So what can we do to be helpful? It’s hard to know how friends and relatives can help.
Here are a few ideas on how to help a friend battling cancer. Many studies have found that cancer survivors with strong emotional support tend to better adjust to the changes cancer brings to their lives, have a more positive outlook, and often report a better quality of life. Research has shown that people with cancer need support from friends.
You can make a big difference in the life of someone with cancer.
Offer Specific Help
Saying “if you need anything, call me” puts the burden on the patient. Do not wait to be asked for a specific task. Offer pragmatic things such as driving carpool or making dinner. Getting a cancer diagnosis is so disorienting and scary for most people that it helps to have someone who will drive to and from the doctor and take notes, maybe even ask questions that you and your friend have discussed but that she forgot to ask because of nerves and anxiety. This is not a light commitment. There are the first attempts at gathering information, and then getting a second, or even third opinion; plus loads of tests.
Volunteer to look after the children or pets
Cancer patients are overwhelmed by information and emotions caused by endless treatments and doctor appointments. Be her eyes, ears and brain by volunteer to look after the children or pets. On the other hand, be understanding if the family asks you to leave, and always refer to your next visit so your friend can look forward to it.
Don’t label the person as “sick.”
So many cancer patients are inundated with medical talk, procedures and tests that all they crave is normalcy as much as possible while outside the doctor’s office. No matter how well-intentioned, talking about cancer gets old quickly for someone whose life is already consumed by the disease. Let your friend know that you are there to listen and allow her to take the lead about the discussion. Gear the conversation to your friend’s attention span so they don’t feel overwhelmed or guilty about not being able to talk. Help your friend focus on whatever brings out good feelings, such as sports, religion, travel, or pets.
You know, like: “My friend’s neighbor’s sister had breast cancer 5 years ago and now she kayaks to work and competes in kickboxing!” Every case has elements that make chemo more or less effective, that make surgery more or less imperative, that make survival more or less probable. Don’t tell them how strong they are; they may feel the need to act strong even when they’re sad or exhausted and don’t offer medical advice or your opinions on things like diet, vitamins, and herbal therapies.
The trauma of having cancer doesn’t go away when treatment ends. Even if they fully recovers, your friendship is still crucial. This is the time when they have to let go of expectations and listen to her body. Creating a new normal and finding the love and trust in their body post-treatment continue well after the last treatment is finished.
More Cancer Resources
For women with breast cancer, Dana-Farber offers a program to help you coordinate your treatment and give you the additional support you may need. For more information, visit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Program for Young Women.