There are a number of ways people react when they are told their friend or loved one has cancer.
The first, and possibly most common, type of reaction comes from those who rise up and say, “We’ll be here for you.”
What exactly does that mean?
Be there for your friend or family member.
Many cancer survivors will tell you that they learned who their real friends were during their treatment time. Some handle it well. Others can’t cope with the emotions and withdraw from the patient.
When I faced my diagnosis of breast cancer with a poor prognosis followed by a year’s aggressive treatment, I soon found out who were really there for me, and those who weren’t. If you’d asked me a week before the diagnosis, who would form my support group, there are names I would have put near the top of the list—yet when the time came, they were too busy, too threatened or too apprehensive, to spend constructive time with me. There were others whom I wouldn’t have even thought of, who became stalwarts in my war against cancer.
Know that you can make a big difference in the life of someone with cancer.
What does it mean to “be there” for those going through treatment for cancer? It simply means giving them your support, whatever that may entail. You may need to listen to them without criticism or correction, rub their backs, fetch them iced water, cut their toenails, or allow them to cry. And sometimes, the best way you can “be there” for them, is to go home and leave them alone.
As you spend time with your friend, watch for ways you can help her*. As you notice ways that the cancer is affecting her everyday life, you can step forward and offer to help in constructive ways. One friend of mine appointed herself as my gardener. As a minister’s wife, I received a huge number of floral arrangements which my husband arranged all round the room. My friend watered them, picked off the dead leaves, combined them as the flowers died, and generally kept them looking lovely.
Make sure you show your friend that she is still important to you, regardless of how she looks or her emotional or physical state. Even if she has a family member staying with her, or if she has a hired carer, your help is still needed. Perhaps the family member or carer needs a break. By offering to sit with the patient, they can get out of the house and do some shopping. Alternatively, you can do the shopping for them.
Pop in regularly to see how she’s doing and if there is anything she needs. If you can’t physically be there, pick up the phone and chat briefly to her or to her carer. Make sure she has your phone number handy and assure her you’re always available to take her call. (If you are. If not, tell her when she can phone you.)
Always call before you visit, and only stay a short time. Treatment is not only debilitating, it’s tiring. Your friend needs company which will help take her mind off what she’s feeling, but she also needs to be able to close her eyes and rest.
Take along something to do in case she doesn’t feel like chatting. I had a friend who came round every afternoon when I first got home from hospital. She brought her mending and would curl up in a chair at the bottom of my bed and work away quietly. I could talk if I felt like it, but I didn’t need to feel bad if I just wanted to close my eyes and dose off.
Don’t point out past habits that may have added to her cancer diagnosis, like smoking. She is likely to feel guilty enough without you rubbing it in. The fact is, she has it. Now she needs to deal with it, and it is your responsibility to help her.
Never assume that because she is asleep, she can’t hear you. Watch what you say in front of her, or even outside the door. Say nothing negative about her condition anywhere near her, and try to encourage a positive outlook whenever possible.
Be sensitive to the times when she needs space. Encourage her to tell you when she would like some time on her own, and don’t take it personally. And of course, there are also people who are best to remain in the background and not physically “be there” at all. If you are one of those, don’t despair. There are other ways to “be there” other than sitting next to a bedside.
These are just some of the ways you can “be there” for your friend who has cancer. Can you think of more? Please add them in the comment section.
*This obviously refers to men as well. I’m using the female gender to make for easier reading.