How to be a friend during cancer

Cancer touches everyone. Whether your body or someone you know. It’s definitely difficult watching a friend or family member face cancer and all the treatments and associated issues. But it’s more difficult being the one actually going through all that. As a three-time cancer survivor, people often ask me how to be a friend during cancer so I put together some suggestions to help a friend in need.

Grateful for my family and friends

Many of you know I cleared my third cancer last year. The unexpected diagnosis of early stage breast cancer definitely shook my world. I was fortunate that my cancer was caught as early as possible (a shadow on a 3D mammogram). But I still had to undergo a lumpectomy, four chemotherapy treatments and radiation. It didn’t end with radiation as I made the decision to shut down my ovaries and take a daily pill to suppress estrogen. All this comes with being proactive to prevent common side effects and more. Instead of losing my hair as I did during bone cancer treatment, I used cold cap therapy during chemo to save 60 percent of my hair.

Clearing my third cancer was shocking and devastating. I rallied myself to face treatment head on with a positive attitude, focus on possibilities and new opportunities to learn and help others, and embrace life with renewed gratitude and appreciation. But I had bad days, days I sat on the bathroom floor crying as my hair shed, impatience at more time spent infusing my body with chemo poisons, anxiety that I have to be proactive against a whole new cancer type. I am truly blessed to be surrounded by amazing family and friends. Even strangers on my social media sites and this blog provided support and motivation. I would not have gotten through all of this without all of this love.

It’s hard to know how to support someone through life’s challenges. These suggestions can relate to cancer or any disease, illness, challenge in life. The most important suggestion is to just be there. Maybe not in person if you can’t but let your friend know you support them, whether in person or otherwise. I was so appreciative of everyone who took time to reach out during my breast cancer treatment last year.

Listen and be supportive.

Learn to simply listen. We all have unique perspectives. It’s sometimes helpful to share your perspectives but it doesn’t mean anyone is obligated to agree or take your recommendation. I had a lot of opinions and insight from others when I shared my treatment plan, thoughts or emotions. While I appreciated much of the ‘food for thought,’ I sometimes found myself justifying my decisions, even my decision to cold cap to save my hair! I stopped sharing with some people. I’ve learned when a friend shares a problem or concern, I ask if they want to simply have an ear to vent to or want my thoughts. This helps me know when to keep my opinion to myself and be a better listener. Also, your friend may not want to talk about their health so don’t hesitate to ask what they’d like to talk about.

Be thoughtful before sharing.

Share stories and opinions thoughtfully. We all know people die from cancer (an estimated 606,500 Americans will die from cancer this year). Many people have complications or challenges with a particular treatment. But when you’re in the midst of treatment or even post-treatment, you don’t need to hear all the crap associated with the disease. Because we know it well. We’re trying to live through it. So consider if the death of an acquaintance from the same cancer really impacts my current treatment plan. If you want to share a story, make it a positive one.

My counter was always full of cards during treatment!
Ask what someone needs.

Many people have a hard time asking for and accepting help. Sometimes you can’t look past treatment to know what to ask for. Consider doing without being asked, if appropriate. Meals (especially those that can be frozen for later), cleaning services, gift cards, books, magazines, transportation and companionship at appointments and more make a positive, meaningful impact to someone. Know that simple gestures matter too. Send a text. Mail a card. Call to say hi. Put together a care package.

Suggest ‘normal’ things together.

I was so grateful to the family and friends who consistently suggested every day activities during treatment. We went to happy hours, work, shopping, movies, dinners and more during treatment and I loved every moment! (I thankfully wasn’t sick nor immune-suppressed during chemo.) Because I could forget cancer and treatment for a short bit and feel normal.

Give a heads up before going MIA if you can’t handle it.

This was the hardest part for me during treatment….not being disappointed or hurt when a few friends dropped off. It can be tough to see a friend go through the challenges of a disease, especially if you’ve been through it personally or had someone else close to you face it. But right then, it’s harder on your friend as they live it. However, you have to do what’s best for you so if you truly need to step back, fine. But tell them so they don’t think you bailed on the friendship. Still keep in touch – send a text, mail a card. Also know that your friendship may change. My perspective on ‘good’ friendships changed and I definitely evaluated those roles going forward. I want people in my life who can be counted on through the good and bad times.

Be there after the illness/treatment.

Life changes for someone facing a serious disease or illness. It doesn’t go back to ‘normal.’ You have to figure out a new normal. Some days it’s hard. Ask how someone is doing. Continue to be supportive.

Do you have other tips for being a good friend during life’s challenges?

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