Helping a Friend with Cancer
You’ve just found our your friend has been diagnosed with cancer. You’re probably experiencing a range of emotions including fear, guilt, confusion and sadness. You’re wondering, “how should I act around them?” “Is it OK to talk about it?” And most of all, “What can I do to help?”
Lori Hope, author of Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know, documentary filmmaker and cancer survivor, teamed up with Aflac insurance in order to answer that question. They conducted a nationwide survey of unpaid caregivers to better understand how people with serious illnesses would like to be approached socially. The survey identified the top ten things to say to someone who is seriously ill. Most focused on keeping positive and supportive while being respectful of the patient’s time, space and decisions. “I love you, and I am here for you no matter what.” was number one. Others included:“I’ll be thinking about you tomorrow at [noon] during your treatment/appointment/surgery,” and “It’s normal to be scared or depressed. I’m here.”
What NOT to say…
- Telling someone how to feel: Each person faces different sets of fears and challenges when met with a serious illness. Telling people how to feel, or that they should think positively, can be counterproductive. However, letting them know that it’s all right to have feelings of fear and sadness is often more effective than saying, “You’re going to be okay.”
- Avoid making assumptions or comparisons: Your friend’s experience is unique, and they may not want to hear about your second cousin who is a ten-year cancer survivor and regularly competes in marathons.
- Comment on a person’s choice of treatment options: People with cancer each have different treatment plans and different responses to treatment. They arrive at these decisions after deep consideration. It doesn’t matter what you would do in the same situation.
Be the same friend you always have been…
You’re friend will experience physical and emotional changes but you should do your best to treat them the same way you always have. Keep positive and remind them that you are there for them. Demonstrate your hope and optimism by making plans for the future together.
Treatments may make small tasks into big struggles. Be patient with your friend. Watch for cues that it might be OK to help but don’t force the issue. They most likely would prefer to be as independent as possible. When in doubt ask permission; to visit, offer help, give advice…
Offer specific ways you can help…
The nonspecific offer: “Let me know if there’s anything that I can do,” is one of the worst things you can ask a friend who is battling cancer. They are most likely overwhelmed with decisions about health care, fears and concerns. Day-to-day needs may be the furthest thing from their mind. It’s far better to think of specific ways you might help and then offer to do them. Consider what your friend really needs and what you’re able to do:
- “I’m going to the store, can I get you anything?”
- “Would you like me to pick up the kids from daycare?”
- “Should I water your plants?”
- ‘Can I take you out for lunch?”
Don’t be offended if the answer is “no,” but try again another day.
“Cell warfare doesn’t leave much time for chores like scrubbing the bathtub or weeding…Cancer turns everyday things into existential symbols. Dirty laundry, dust bunnies, and empty refrigerators quickly become images of disorder and loss of control.” says Kelly Corrigan, newspaper columnist and breast cancer survivor.
Serious illnesses can leave you too overwhelmed, tired or sick to ask for help, also your friend may feel like they were imposing. Extending specific offers, without being asked, shows that you truly want to help. A bag of groceries or a load of dishes can mean more than dozens of cards.
It may prove useful to both you and your friend if you organize a support team to accomplish the the myriads of task that will make your friend’s life easier and more comfortable. This way you can make sure that someone is always checking in and that chores do not go undone. Online resources can help you coordinate your efforts.
The solace of silence…
Sometimes it’s better to give your friend some distance, “This may not be a good time. I’ll call again in a few days, ” is a good thing to say when your friend is not up to talking. When you are sick, there are both good days and bad days, this could be one of the latter.
An underrated and greatly appreciated way to help is to sit quietly and say nothing. People with a serious illness spend a great deal of time and energy explaining how they are feeling and relaying the details of their illness to friends, family, co-workers and even strangers. Your friend may be weary of talking about cancer and want discuss something else or maybe they need to rest and silence would be a welcome change. Someone just being there, is all the help they need.
Support your friend emotionally–and financially…
Cancer is a drain: physically, emotionally and financially
- Average out-of-pocket expenses amount to $712 a month–even with insurance!
- Expenses include: co-pays, travel to and from treatment, prescriptions and many others.
- Some treatments are not fully covered under insurance– some are not covered at all.
- In addition to medical expenses, patients often have to take extended periods of time off of work.
“One in five people with cancer use up all or most of their savings, and those are people who have insurance, ” says Christy Schmidt, a cancer survivor and an author of the a joint report from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the American Cancer Society outlining the serious financial consequences of cancer. Another study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center revealed that people diagnosed with cancer were twice as likely to file for bankruptcy. Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S.
If your friend is like most people, they are unprepared to handle this kind of expense on their own. But you can help. By starting a GiveForward fundraising page you empower your friend’s family and friends to offer emotional and financial support.
Jamie Dieringer raised $67, 507 for family friend 18 month old, Isabella Pollard, who had a cancerous neuroblastoma in her abdomen. Her parents were under-insured at the time because her mother was pregnant and on leave from work and her father had recently graduated from university and hadn’t yet found a job. Fortunately between their insurance and the funds raised from their GiveForward page the Pollards were able to afford Bella’s medical care which included five rounds of chemo and travel from their home in Hawaii to the Boston Children’s Hospital for surgery. Bella has been pronounced cancer free and has returned to blowing bubbles and finger painting. Lori also raised money with GiveForward for a friend with cancer, read about her experience on her blog.
Battling cancer is a challenging, scary and debilitating experience. Fortunately, your friend has you to help them through it. Trust in your friendship, remember to be positive, non-judgemental and to offer specific ways to help. Your enduring presence will reassure and comfort and your help with practical things such as occasional chores or starting a GiveForward fundraising page to allay expenses will maintain normalcy and keep the bills the paid. Do your best to be a good listener and give your friend plenty of space–sometimes just being there is what helps the most.