When a friend is diagnosed with cancer, you may have a lot of questions. If your friend has chosen to share their experience with their disease with you, I have some answers that I have learned in the past few months while fighting cancer myself.
1. Say something
After the news gets out that someone has cancer, they invariably will receive a lot of messages. If your friend has cancer and your first thought is that your friend “needs their space,” think again. We remember who was there when things were the scariest, and don’t mind awkward wording or anything else you’d be nervous about. No one knows what to say, but something that is for sure is that simply mentioning to your friend that you’re thinking of them means a whole lot. Put your name in the hat from the start. We’ll be grateful for a long time.
2. Send mail
These days, sending a postcard or care package can seem quite inconvenient when you could just send a text. But many times, cancer treatment involves a lot of sitting around, and receiving something in the mail brings something special and unusual into our sometimes boring, often painful, cancer days. First, we learn that you took an extra step just to make us smile. Going to the post office might have just added one more thing to your to-do-list, but you did it anyways, just to help us feel better. That is amazing. Letters are incredibly personal and touching, and care packages can actually help a whole lot from a practical perspective. If you don’t know what to put in one, companies like ChemoComfort will do it for you. ChemoComfort was founded by an incredible two-time breast cancer survivor, who puts together individualized care packages of the things she most appreciated when she went through treatment. Mine included a satin pillowcase and ginger hard candies–two things that have now become staples of mine.
*Side note–don’t get discouraged if we don’t respond quickly, or maybe forget to respond at all to your messages or mail. Hearing from you almost invariably made our day, but with so many messages PLUS chemo brain PLUS the general chaos of life with cancer, we may just not get back to you quickly. Don’t beat yourself up. You’re a good friend. We’ll let you know in time.
3. Make a visit
If you are near your friend, visit. If it is financially possible for you and you can manage a visit with your schedule, do it. Cancer is incredibly, sometimes unbearably isolating. Our caretakers become our closest companions, and although the relationship that develops between us and them is beautiful, it’s hard to live with such a small circle of people. With cancer, we either have to leave our jobs or school or only get to go part time, and we spend a lot of time at home. Furthermore, being sick is emotionally and physically draining. When you come visit, you’re showing that you’re trying your best to reach a level of understanding. You’re also just bringing some happiness to otherwise monotonous days. Also, some cancers and treatments make our immune systems very weak, so we can’t take public transportation, and our chemo brain affects our attention span and reaction time, so we can’t drive. Don’t be insulted if we’re close but don’t visit you. Come on over. We’re still fun!
4. Keep in touch
Treatment is long. Even if treatment seems relatively short it can feel very, very long. One message or one visit do mean a lot, but there may be some confusion about how treatment works. Chemo, at least, does not get better and better as it progresses. Yes, sometimes the first infusion is the absolute worst, but the way chemo actually works in the body is cumulative. That means we might be having just a hard time our 4th month as we were our 1st. It can be easy to get swept up into school and work when a friend is in treatment, and forget to check in. Here is where a text can mean the world. If it’s been a while, check up on them, and try to have a real conversation. If you can visit, do so as much as possible. The further it gets from when we were diagnosed, the less people we tend to hear from. And sometimes, we struggle reaching out ourselves. We can feel left out, or feel like a burden. Remind your friend that she is more than that by sending her a text saying “hi.”
5. Remember to ask–certain things
When you do talk to your friend, try not to always lead with “how are you feeling” or–if in person or on the phone–“how are you?” with stress on the word “are.” When asked as a lead question, “how are you feeling?” is uncomfortable. The honest answer is usually not “good” but we might not feel comfortable being that honest if you haven’t said anything else to us in a while. Try, instead, to go into a conversation your friend feels comfortable having. Ask them if they want to talk about cancer or if they’d rather talk about something light and fun (like my personal favorite, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). And don’t be afraid if they want to talk about the disease. So many conversations are spent avoiding it that when you finally sit down and talk to us, we might be ready to tell you everything. Also, many are afraid to ask where they are curious. Your friend will likely be very happy to answer your questions about the disease, how they found it, and what treatment is like. We’ll be happy you were interested and brave enough to ask.
6. Show humor
Your friend might make a joke to you about their disease. Don’t be scared. We don’t automatically lose our sense of humor along with our hair or something. Some experiences we go through with cancer are actually very funny. (Here’s one: we lose our nose hair, too, and that means our noses are constantly dripping. Constantly. If that isn’t a funny way that chemo adds insult to injury I don’t know what is.) You and your friends have been making each other laugh for ages; now is not the time to stop.
7. Know that when treatment is over, it’s just the beginning
We can all be inclined to think that when cancer is over life goes back to “normal.” That isn’t a great way to think. Cancer changes us forever, and when we become survivors, it may sound cheesy, but our journey will have just begun. Your friend will be finding their new normal, and will need you by their side. For young adult cancer especially, the time after treatment can be a vulnerable time for depression. You made it through the most difficult time of your friend’s life with them. That’s an incredible accomplishment. Celebrate heartily, and remember, as always, to keep in touch.
What are other ways to be a great friend to a cancer fighter? Share in the comments!