Cancer. It’s the word no one wants to hear and yet every day so many people do. Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ll have a friend or loved one who’s been diagnosed. When the devastating news reaches you, it’s not unusual to feel helpless, unsure of how to help or even how to react.
Keeping in mind that every patient’s journey is unique, you’re going to need to figure out how to provide support that’s thoughtful and helpful, without being invasive or overbearing.
Over the years, many of us at Be Well have had experiences with dear ones facing cancer and have gained a bit of wisdom (sometimes the hard way) on how to provide support. While by no means a definitive list, here are a few thoughts to consider when it’s time to be a source of strength for someone you love:
Hold it together
It’s not easy, but resist the urge to cry or breakdown in front of the patient. By all means, be empathetic and loving, but if you’re going to lose it, try to do so privately. The last thing you want to do is put your sick friend in the position of trying to comfort you when they’re at their lowest. Don’t make it their job to prop you up.
It’s not about you
When supporting or helping care for an ill friend, keep in mind that their crisis is not about you. Nor is it about your Aunt Hilda who was diagnosed and dead three weeks later — comparisons can be anything but helpful! As important as you may feel it is to air your thoughts on prognosis, survival rates, etc. (“I’m just being honest!”), for now, they’re perhaps best shared with someone other than the patient. The sick person may be in the fight of their lives — you’re not — so cool it on the negative oversharing, at least until they’re out of the woods. Another piece of advice: Don’t look for a ‘cause.’ Speculating on how your friend may have ‘come down’ with cancer won’t solve anything and can wind up blaming the victim — certainly not what the doctor ordered.
No, really, it’s SO not about you
If you choose to help out your friend by doing things like going with them to chemo appointments, running errands, doing household chores, or simply spending quality time, whatever it is, do it out of the goodness of your heart. Don’t do it for validation, or with an expectation of gratitude. Doing so will likely lead to disappointment and/or resentment. Keep in mind that those going through an illness like cancer may not have the emotional bandwidth to validate your ‘saintliness.’ Instead of looking for accolades, go quietly about your business, expect nothing in return, and use the experience as an opportunity to cultivate compassion as well as gratitude for the time you have together.
Don’t ask them to ask you for help
When a friend is ill, and in some cases looking at mortality in the face, they’re likely too overwhelmed to think about how you can help them. Or they simply may not be comfortable assigning you tasks. Make it easier for them. Instead of a vague offer like “Let me know if you need anything,” (however earnest it might be), ask them directly if you can do something specific to help lighten their physical, mental or emotional load. For example: “Can I …drive you to the doctor’s office? Babysit the kids? Mow your lawn? Wheel your recycling out for pickup? Bring over dinner and a funny movie? And offer only what you can truly deliver on. Last minute bailouts when an unwell person is relying on you are far more disappointing than you’ll ever know.
Gestures don’t have to be big
In many cases, being a supportive friend doesn’t mean moving in and taking over the running of your friend’s life — smaller gestures can be equally meaningful for the patient. As long as you are consistent and your actions don’t ask anything in return, your impact can be profound. For example, I’ve had cancer survivors tell me that things like frequent voicemails that required no response, daily thinking-of-you texts, and humorous email cards were among the little gestures that helped keep them afloat during their darkest days.
Speak a little less — and listen more
Often, when nervous or anxious, people tend to talk too much. When spending time with an ill person, let them speak, and don’t be afraid of the silences. Give them the time and space to talk about whatever is on their mind, be it the score of yesterday’s baseball game, the latest celebrity break-up, or how badly they may be feeling. Also, learn to listen more. Keep the lines open so they know they can share their thoughts without the risk of being ignored or invalidated. Enable them to vent, laugh, cry, or do whatever they need to do without judgment, interruption, or imposing ‘solutions.’
Remember the caregivers
When a friend is dealing with cancer, the unsung heroes are the caregivers, so try to support them as well. Again, something as simple as a hug that says ‘I understand,’ or giving them some space to vent can have a powerful effect, relieving some of their stress and loneliness in trying times. If you can, give them a break from their caregiving duties. Offer to spend the afternoon with your friend so the caregiver can have a few hours off to rest or do what they need to do, knowing their loved one is in good hands.
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