My friend has cancer. What do I do?

(For the last Friday in Cancer Awareness Month, I'm posting the second post by my friend, a breast cancer survivor. She wrote this post earlier in the month, and her blog is at Dance With The Reaper.)

Oh, shoot,  your friend has just told you that she has been diagnosed with cancer.  I am so sorry.  You're reading this post, wondering how you can be a good friend.

The bad answer is that there is nothing you can do to make your friend's cancer better.  All you can do is make the little things easier for her, and let her know that you remain her friend.

Here are some things that people did for me, that I appreciated a lot.

Meals.  All of those casseroles, and lasagna, and home made food, and food from the grocery store, and food from take-out food places.  All of it.  I appreciated it all.  But please do ask about food allergies. It's terrible to have to throw out something someone made because it has nuts in it.

Time.  Not a lot of people have the stomach to spend time with someone who is going through cancer, but those people who did meant a lot to me.  Spend a morning with her.  Even if all she does is sleep, it
means a lot.  And while you are there, do the dishes or fold a load of laundry.  My brother came out for a week and my friend Heather even flew out to spend a few days with me while I was going through
radiation.  Those two visits made the whole seven weeks of radiation feel like a gift and not a trial.

Chauffeuring.  A lot of cancer patients drive themselves to appointments.  I don't know how they do it.  Offer to drive your friend to the doctor, the grocery store, the dry cleaner.  Pick her kids up and take them to soccer and ballet.  Not being able to drive is paralyzing, especially since most Americans don't have access to decent public transportation, and people with compromised immune systems shouldn't take public transit anyway.

Notes and cards.  We moved recently, and, in unpacking, I found a box of cards people had sent to me while I was sick.  I read them and threw them out (I am not a keeper of anything) but the fact that my
husband and mother had kept them and put them into a box for me to look at tells you how much it meant to me and my family.

Presents.  This is a tricky one, because most people are not like me, and they have a hard time throwing stuff out.  I was sent numerous hats, scarves, books, and miscellaneous items throughout my ordeal by my totally awesome friends, who are awesome, and who I do not deserve. Anyone who is my friend knows that I will throw stuff out at the slightest provocation, so everything I got came with a note that said "if you don't like this, give it away or throw it away, and don't send a thank you note."  I have the best friends ever.  Thank you all, again.

Money.  Cancer is so expensive.  How do you give someone money?  You don't, of course, but you give gift certificates to the grocery store, and to Target and, in the case of my completely awesome and wonderful friends, Neiman Marcus.

The hardest part, for me, has been picking up friendships after my cancer treatment was over.  It is extremely awkward, probably because my friends are all mad at me for being a gross noncommunicator while I was going through treatment, and then for being just wretched all the time while I recovered.  It's taken the better part of two years for me to return to something even resembling normal.  My true friends are the ones who have overlooked the massive faux pas that has been me for a very, very long time.

My favorite cancer friend story is this one:

I was at Little Gym with my son, who was four, chit chatting with one of the moms.  I mentioned that I had forgotten a lot of basic stuff as a result of my treatment, so I felt like I was some horrid combination of 13 and 19 years old.  I saw the light bulb go off in her head and she said, kindly, "Do you remember my name?"


"Do you remember me at all?"

I shook my head.  I have the feeling she brought over a lasagna a week for months.

"Well, I'm Brooke, and we're friends, and we can start over and become friends again."

If you want to be a good cancer friend, be like my friend Brooke.

41 thoughts on “My friend has cancer. What do I do?”

  1. I LOVE your friend Brooke. Give her a kiss for me 😉 That is one of the kindest things I ever heard.I would just remind people that just like your friends were not a monolithic set of opinions before they got sick, they aren’t afterwards, either. And for some people, there is really nothing you can do to help, except maybe be there to listen.
    So while something like meals were a lifesaver and great thing for my friend Guest Poster, they were a disaster for me; not just food allergies, but, sometimes, when you’re on certain chemo, everything smells absolutely nauseating, and I needed the house to be free of any unexpected food smells.
    Also gifts… with the understanding that they will be thanked for and/or at least acknowledged, were something I truly dreaded. People were like, you can get back to me about this when you’re better, but that didn’t take into consideration that it took more than a year after treatment ended for the life-sucking fatigue to go away. And the brains (memory and concentration) have still not come back. I am still immersed in several situations on account of this that I do not know how to resolve. In my defense, I think I made it exceedingly clear in advance that I couldn’t cope with gifts.
    Help with transportation would have been great, because my husband provided very limited and grudging support on that front – for reasons I purely cannot understand (he had scadzoodles of available vacation time of which he used _none at all _ during my treatment, but hey, I’m not bitter. Oh, yeah, right, I am. About that. He’s been great to me since – absolutely super. Maybe it was a weird guy fear thing.)- but I was far too sick to manage the logistics of arranging it; he wanted me to beg friends and strangers (ACS – which I think is for people who truly NEED it, not people whose husbands don’t want to miss pistol team.) for lifts, but I didn’t have the energy to work it out, and it was too humiliating to contemplate, anyway. So I was in by 9, out by 5, like drycleaning, waiting miserable sick hours in hospital waiting rooms alone.
    I did have several lovely people offer to drive me home from work on those occasions I made it in but felt I couldn’t make it back -0 but there again logistics got me flummoxed – if I had taken up the offers, I would have been left with my car at work and no way to retrieve it.
    Some people are just hopeless. Tell them you love them and are thinking of them, and maybe they’ll come back when they’re better….
    So, yeah, pretty much I let my friends down on this one; there was nothing I could/would let them do, and I expect it was frustrating.
    So some of them bailed, and some of them didn’t, and like the Guest poster found, some of them… have just faded from my memory….

  2. I am going to pray every day that I grow up to be Brooke.My best friend is fighting a cancer recurrence. Thank you for this post. I am far away which makes it hard, but the letters and constant funny emails (on my part) make me feel like at least I can distract a little bit.

  3. Thank you for this. My best friend whom I met in 5th grade has stage 3 endometrial cancer and while it is not about me, I am struggling greatly in terms of my role- to compound the issue we are 2300 miles apart and I have a 17 week old who I’m nursing and a 3 year old (SAHM) so I cant just hop on a plane- and I cant bring the kids for one she is childless and just had a complete hysteroctmy- her chemo starts in a few weeks. I can’t get to her until after the holidays becuase my husband is a professor- anyway-thank you again for covering this.

  4. GOD, that last story about Brooke had me really losing it.While cancer has hit my husband’s family in horrible ways, I’ve never really experienced it first hand. (we have other horrible crap in my family) About a year and a half ago a co-worker/friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she is only a few years older and her kids are school age (like mine), it hit me hard. While generally my first instinct is to RUN from any potentially uncomfortable situation, I firmly decided I needed to “women up” and help, even in the small, small ways I was able.
    She had some close friends mount the task of organizing what assistance she needed, and they used a cool website to schedule meal delivery, etc. It felt wonderful to be able to do what little I could to help her family while they were going through this – so she could concentrate what time/energy she had to fighting the cancer and being a mom. I also sent her cards at home weekly during her treatment – I though the mail would be a welcome diversion. (I have a suspicion that those cards were as much for ME as they were for her.)
    She would occasionally send out an email with a brief update and a thank you – and that’s all I ever needed. Actually, I didn’t even need that. Just seeing her every day at work and hearing the stories of her kids (like old times) is what I needed. I think the most important thing is to do whatever you can and give willingly and without strings.

  5. What a beautiful post. Having been the caretaker for a friend of mine, every day for the last 4 months, while she recovered from major surgery, I would echo what the post said and say one more thing. Moxie’s friend’s wisdom extends past cancer to all major health issues.My friend has been on *major* drugs for 4 months and is tapering off now. There have been times when she doesn’t remember something that happened yesterday and is upset that it didn’t get done, even thought she changed her mind about it, and can’t remember that. My motto, since I’m there everyday, is why bring it up. My job is to serve her, love her, and help her get through this. My job is also to call on my thick skin and not take anything personal.
    The little things are the most important. Normal isn’t normal during healing. So making sure things are the way she likes them, not doing them the way that’s easiest for me, helps her remember normal. I think normal things are the most loving things you can do, i.e. laundry, dishes, vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom and a warm cup of tea.
    I have been the care taker for my mom, my grandmother, for several birthing situations, and now for my friend. It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with a sick body or a recovering healthy body; helping her restore and maintain her dignity is key.
    Great wisdom from this lady, thank you for sharing.

  6. Beautiful post. Brooke sounds like a great person.I went to chemo with my sister. Drove her there, sat with her all day and drove home. Every week for a long time. When she started travelling to other places for treatment, my niece stayed with us. Every week. I hope that helped her, having me by her side and knowing that her daughter was in loving arms. I’m confident it did.
    Give what you can, what they need.

  7. And here’s more about how wonderful Brooke is…I’m Guest Poster’s mom, and I took the Rambunctious Boy to Little Gym, my heart breaking in loneliness and because my daughter couldn’t be there like the other moms.
    Brooke recognized RB, and became my Little Gym friend, giving me needed hugs and joy.
    Brooke, I hope you read this post, because you are the greatest cancer and cancer mom friend, and I LOVE YOU!!

  8. I was holding it together until I got to the part about your friend Brooke. Truly beautiful! Having seen my mom through 2 horrid years of cancer treatments and all the hell that went with it, all of your points are spot on. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thank you for this post. How wonderful of you to think about how those of us not going through the treatments can support those who are!My MIL started chemo this past Monday, and I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how we can support her from so far away. We are going to send photos, pictures the kids draw, cards and little gifts every week. We are also going to visit once a month for a weekend, if at all possible.
    My biggest concern is the holidays, because they are so important to her and we don’t know how she’ll be doing by December. My husband is at least taking off a week and going down with my 3yo, so hopefully he can help her decorate the way she wants it done.
    I had no idea the chemo would affect memory like that. I will be sure to keep that in mind from now on. Thanks again for sharing all this. And yeah for Brooke!

  10. One of my friends is battling cancer (and winning!) and one of her friends set up a calendar for meals and help – people bring meals 3x a week, someone comes to clean her house every other Saturday, and others help out with other random needs here and there. It’s been so awesome to have someone organize it all so we are sure she’s covered with help and food all the time.

  11. Robin, I have a friend who is a doctor and is serving in Afghanistan. I love the idea of sending him the names of God, and am going to do that.This was a wonderful post. Thanks for the helpful advice.

  12. My cousin had double mastectomy, chemo, rad a few years ago. She was in MI, I in PA, and she’s about 20 years older than me-we aren’t close. But I hand-wrote each of the 72 names of Gd on 5×7 cards, hole-punched & mailed 1per day followed by a ring to keep together. I later found out just looking forward to that little tiny thing each day was big. If you are far away, be creative, personal. You can be a little light perhaps. (my cousin is healthy & well now-to the extent I can know. & we have become a bit closer, too.)

  13. Jill- great idea-maybe I can do it again for military nephew. I wrote out the whole meditation for each, & it became a great meditation for me, as well

  14. When my aunt had cancer, I sent her postcards everyday while I was in the Rockies doing fieldwork. I didn’t have to write much, I just wanted her to know I was thinking of her.

  15. mox, i sure hope you’re tagging this “appropriate behavior.”we all need a brooke in our lives. and thanks, guest poster, for sharing so candidly with us. it’s nice to know what to do when someone you love needs help but he/she can’t waste precious energy relaying that info.

  16. I just lost a friend a week ago to a recurrence of cancer. Since his second diagnosis in September, we had about 6 weeks before he died. I made it once to visit him in the hospital while he was undergoing radiation, because I have a little one and stay at home with her. After the radiation, he went back home for chemo and that’s when things fell apart. He had a horrible reaction to the drugs and was in a coma the last week of his life. I wish there had been more time. I guess I’m writing because as much as we all have intentions to support our friends going through this, we tend to think we can do it later. Don’t wait. I’m so glad I sat with him the morning I did because that was the last time I saw him.

  17. This is a wonderful post Moxie. Might I suggest a regular segment called “My friend — —… what should I do?”Second installment called “My friend is getting a divorce… what should I do?”
    Although now that I think about it, the advice is similar…

  18. It’s relatively apparent that there’s no tricky point (very little really difficult) on earth. if you happen to make up your thoughts to accomplish it, you will definitely complete your stop. That stands to cause.

  19. These all photos are looking really very wonderful to know about it. There are so many little gifts can be visit to going these all are performing great to know for the possible.

  20. I was diagnosed with colon cncaer when I was 22 years old. Having this old person disease absolutely changed my life. I went through 4 surgeries over a 4 month period, including a temporary ileostomy. I felt very isolated. Few people came to see me, few people called. My friends didn’t know how to approach me or deal with it so they just stopped coming around. While I was in the hospital my husband left me. I maintained a very positive attitude through it all because I could see a very bright light at the end of the tunnel. But the hard part was, I went from being a married, normal, adventurous woman, to someone who couldn’t leave the house and had no one but her parents to spend time with.When I healed from the surgeries and was told I could get on with my life I wondered how I was supposed to do that. How do I get a new job now? How do I live the life of a single adult? I felt like I was in a rut and no one I knew could understand. They wondered why I wasn’t moving forward, why I wasn’t embracing life now that I was better. But life was different. I didn’t know what my life was anymore.But it got better. I met someone. I got a job. I found new hobbies. I found new friends. Through determination and faith, I moved on. I always knew I would, I just didn’t exactly know how to get there. But God carried me. When I didn’t know what step to take, He picked me up and showed me. Cancer was the battle of my life. It still is. I have a hereditary condition called Lynch Syndrome so I am constantly battling to stay healthy in order to avoid a re-occurrence or a new cncaer. I have also been diagnosed with Endometriosis and will most likely never have children. My life is going to be far different than I ever imagined it being, but I can honestly say that it is far better than it was before I had cncaer. Cancer was the best experience of my entire life. Yes, it was painful, and lonely, and scary, and miserable but it was also in a weird way freeing, and liberating cncaer taught me something that few people my age get the chance to learn. It showed me what is truly important in life. All of the things that I wanted before cncaer took a backburner afterwards. It changed my goals and I think, because of that, I am going to have a much more full life. I see things differently now. The world looks more vibrant to me. I think it would have been sad if I had gone my whole life never knowing how it felt to see the world this way. I’m grateful for it all. But I am mostly grateful to still have my life. I pray everyday that the cncaer doesn’t come back. And having a good cncaer support group online has helped me deal with the negative effects of cncaer. I have also applied to attend First Descents this summer in Vail, CO and am looking forward to meeting people who have been through similar experiences. I love this organization and hope to be more involved with it in the future. It is definitely needed.

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