My friend just learned she has cancer. What can I do?
I remember having such a wide range of emotions in reaction to my diagnosis of ovarian cancer a little more than three years ago. They included shock, dismay, devastation, disbelief, anxiety, and realization, with many more in between.
It all happened so fast that to catch my breath seemed almost impossible. What’s the next step, where do I go from here and how I am going to get through all of these tests, surgery and treatment?
And those weren’t my only concerns. How would I tell my family and friends I have cancer again, after 13 years of being cancer-free? While breast and ovarian cancer are often related, mine were two completely different cancers.
It turns out that it takes one step at a time, the help and support of family and friends and another “C” word – communication.
“Your friends and family may feel powerless,” said Jeffrey Gaudet, LICSW, OSW-C, survivorship program manager at Davenport-Mugar Cancer Center at Cape Cod Hospital. “While you’re being diagnosed, there is a lot of testing, your treatment gets outlined by your providers, there may be surgery, radiation and chemotherapy to discuss and then you continue to participate in a plan. You actually get to do something about the cancer, even if it’s uncomfortable and painful.”
Your friends and family want to do something but they may not know what to do or how to do it.
Gaudet explained that when you tell a friend you have cancer, it stirs up a mix of emotions for them. They may wonder if you’re going to die, are they going to lose you and what can they say that can help?
Often, this can result in awkward conversation, Gaudet calls “blurts.” Friends may tell you about their family members who have had a successful treatment of their cancer and also about the ones who may not have survived.
“It’s a gut reaction on their part, the need to do something, so they’re going to tell you their story because that is where their frame of reference (about cancer is),” said Gaudet.
So, how can friends and family help?
“Sometimes it’s just offering practical things,” according to Gaudet. “Do something that is normal, routine, helpful and distracting.”
Help Normalize Life
Here are some suggestions from him and the American Cancer Society:
- Offer to go to surgical, medical and oncology appointments for support and to gather information.
- Write down questions to ask the provider and write the answers in a notebook. Information can come at a fast clip and you may not recall the answers.
- Make a contact and email list to send updates to friends and family.
- Prepare simple meals. It is a good idea to ask your friend what they may feel like eating because their tastes can change with treatment. Consider small portions if not feeding a family.
- Ask what they can eat, some may not be able to eat uncooked foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables because of low immunity.
- Offer to take a walk with them, even if it’s a few feet.
- Help to normalize their life such as going to the movies if possible, or watch a movie at home.
- Offer to do errands.
- Holistic treatments such as massages, Reiki, acupuncture can help make them more comfortable, and a ride for a treatment may turn their day around.
- Offer to do some housework and/or laundry.
- Read to them in quiet times.
- Call them and leave a voicemail if they don’t answer, they may not feel like talking in that moment.
- Spending time with them and not talking about cancer.
- Understand if they are not up to going out or have limited energy to do activities.
- Be a good listener, try not to impose what you would say or do in their situation. Everyone reacts differently to having cancer. Support their feelings and allow them to be negative, withdrawn or quiet.
- Send cards with a note enclosed.
- Pet sit or offer to take the dog for a walk.
- Offer to help and support the caregiver.
- Arrange for a special event that is medically safe for them to do during or after completion of treatment. I had always wanted to go to Cirque De Soleil, so my daughter arranged a trip to Boston that included lunch and attendance at one of their performances. It gave me something to look forward to and it is a very special memory for both of us.
Communication Is Key
While all of these tips can help friends and family, as well as their loved one going through cancer treatment, one very important key is communication, whether it be with family and friends or in a support group.
“Fear of loss and death can make communication difficult,” said Gaudet. “Patients often say they have a difficult time talking to their family about their concerns. These include not being the same person they used to be, people won’t like them or want to be with them, because they are not the same and they can’t be.”
The other difficulty is the use of labels such as ‘survivorship’ and the ‘new normal.’
“Some people have a hard time with the word ‘surviving’ because they have the old mechanism in their mind that surviving means getting through treatment and being cancer-free for five years,” said Gaudet.
The new definition is you’re a survivor from the day of diagnosis, he said.
“How I describe the ‘new normal’ with people is that it is a fluid thing. It’s different for everyone because what you think may be normal now may not be the case in the future.”
Some final bits of information for family and friends:
- When treatment is over, it can be a celebratory moment and also a sense of loss. Your loved one has been closely watched by providers every day and able to ask their questions. They could always be reassured by that. This is no longer the case when treatment is finished. You may help by commenting to them that it was an exciting moment, but they didn’t seem to be as excited as the staff. That could open the door to some further conversation and discussing how questions can be answered going forward.
- They may continue to have side effects such as lack of appetite, fatigue and low stamina for a while. These don’t always automatically go away when treatment is complete.
- Relationships may be different and expectations can change. A wife heard the provider say that everything would be normal within eight weeks and, at nine weeks, her husband still has fatigue, depression and is napping in the afternoon. It can be difficult and communication with each other, as well as the provider, can help both to better understand.
“The hallmark of cancer is your cancer is not my cancer, is not your neighbor’s cancer,” said Gaudet. “Everyone’s experience will be different.”