Nothing can prepare you for when the doctor turns to you and says ‘you have cancer.’ or ‘your son has cancer.’ Yet, that’s exactly what happened to my wife and I in September of 2010 (for me) and May of 2014 (for my son). I am now 32 years-old and my son is 5, and we don’t fit the profile of the typical cancer survivor. Nevertheless, my family has faced the disease head-on twice now, juggling everything during the process of diagnosis, treatment and continuing care.
Being sick was really tough for me, but it was even worse when my son was diagnosed. My darkest hour was the night before my son went into surgery to have his tumor removed. His body was failing him, and I felt completely helpless.
We had family, friends and members of our church community rally around asking what they can do. I think this process can be equally difficult for those people. Beyond prayer — asking God to make the illness go away — forever, it’s hard to know how to help. Here are 8 ideas to help a friend that has cancer.
Offer Specific Help
Assume that a family going through cancer is either reluctant to ask or unable to articulate their needs. Saying “if you need anything, call me” puts the burden on the patient. Psychotherapist Robi Ludwig, a Care.com parenting expert, suggests you offer pragmatic things such as driving carpool, making dinner (Take Them a Meal is a great resource to use as you can create a schedule for the family so people won’t prepare lasagna six nights in a row!), doing the laundry or helping take care of the family pet. And with their anti-bodies (and energy) at an all-time low, they’ll need a healthy meal and a clean home more than ever. See if you can find a cleaning person to work around her chemo schedule. This might be a gift a few friends can chip in on.
Be a Health Buddy
Cancer patients are overwhelmed by information and emotions caused by endless treatments and doctor appointments. Be their eyes, ears and brain by attending doctors’ appointments or handling time-consuming healthcare and insurance tasks. “Sit with them in the waiting room, join them for a cup of tea right before and be there in appointments to be their CNT or Chief Note Taker,” says Lindsay Avner, founder and CEO of Bright Pink.
Get Pictures Taken
Now might not seem like the best time for a glamour shots, but before your friend loses their hair, gains or loses weight depending on the treatment process and feels really run down, arrange for a private session with a photographer. Get the family session, but also take lots of photos throughout the treatment. They can be inspirational and empowering for people during the cancer journey, and are a valuable keepsake once the treatment process is complete. I wish that I (or my friends) had taken more high quality photos throughout our cancer processes.
Take Their Mind Off Cancer
No matter how well-intentioned, talking about cancer gets old quickly for people whose life is already consumed by the disease. Let your friend know that you are there to listen and allow them to take the lead about the discussion. When I was sick, I had a friend arrange a day for me and a few guests to travel to watch a my favorite college football team practice. It was a day all about getting out and having fun, with no talk about cancer or treatment. What can you do for your friend to give their mind a break? Maybe they would welcome a trip to the movies, having a massage day or an afternoon BBQ at the park just to take their mind off the illness.
Understand Their Flakiness
Cancer is a rollercoaster. One day your friend may want to be alone and the next day they may want to be surrounded by friends. I recall a time someone came to my house during my treatment process to visit and I never answered the door. Let them know it’s okay if they cancel and don’t take it personally if a few calls, texts, emails or knocks at the door go unanswered. Given what they are going through, this is to be expected.
Establish an Online Information Repo
Answering the same questions about treatment, diagnosis and/or prognosis can be exhausting and time-consuming. Offer to set up a Facebook page or CaringBridge page where friends and associates can go for updates on their care and health status. The individual can manage it, if they are up to it. Or you can post the info they want people to know. Using one of these resources or groups can also help you coordinate things like traveling to treatments and appointments, babysitting and meal-making the local followers will want to take off her hands.
Some additional resources for this are Navigating Cancer and Lotsa Helping Hands. Both allow your friend to set up a personal profile or blog so friends and family are up-to-date with their treatment. A calendar is system is also used to coordinate help such as meals, driving, etc.
Give Them a Gift
Cancer can get lonely at times. Long hospital stays, painful treatments and uncertainty. Sometimes the best way to show a friend you care is a small gift or gesture. A handwritten note or some flowers to brighten the room can go a long way to make some feel cared for. Other times, a more concerted effort to help your friend or family member going through cancer is in order. During my son’s battle with cancer, we had a few friends organize a GoFundMe campaign, and it went a long way to help us with expenses. Never underestimate the power of generosity.
The process of having cancer doesn’t stop when treatment ends. Even if your friend recovers, your friendship is still critical. When I ended my treatment, I recall feeling skeptical when a friend that had gone through cancer told me that it might take me a year to feel “normal” again. But her advice was true. There were so many times in the proceeding months after cancer ended that I was doing things like locking my keys in my car, losing my shoes, forgetting peoples names, etc. Be patient with your friends after the process ends and show grace whenever you can. And don’t be surprised if they might still need your help every now and again.