The other day I was going along happily checking my Facebook in between commercials when I read something that pissed me off. I mean flaming mad. One of my sorority sisters from my college days just asked (via status update) for some positive energy. She needed it, because she has cancer. And nothing makes me more angry than someone I care about getting cancer.
I used to just get sad when someone told me they got the big C. It used to be rare and usually to an older person. When someone who has lived a fairly full life gets cancer, it sucks. You try to rationalize that they have had time on this Earth and have seen kids grow, grandchildren born, etc., yet it is still hard to deal with and manage your emotions.
But when it happens to someone on the younger side…to someone in the prime of their lives, it just doesn’t make sense. In my twenties when a friend my age was stricken with breast cancer, I was devastated. It just didn’t seem possible. Then it seemed to happen more and more, a few times a year. A high school classmate, a secretary at my kids’ school, my colleague, my girlfriend. It doesn’t discriminate and knows no boundaries.
I’ve found out over wine, via text, through Facebook — and it never gets easier to hear those words. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be the person delivering the news. I have cancer. It changes everything.
And it’s not bad enough that people I care about deeply are affected. Sometimes it’s their child, which I find both devastating and infuriating at the same time. It’s just not fair.
Most of the time, thankfully, my peeps rally and kick cancer in the ass. Big time. They laugh in its ugly face and give it the middle finger.
But sometimes they can’t, and they lose the war after fighting so many exhausting battles. This makes me angry, because these are people who don’t get to see their children grow up, or sometimes have children at all. These are people who were seemingly healthy until having a headache, a lingering cough, a lump. These are people who do not deserve cancer.
It all just makes me so angry. But I think I’m angry because cancer takes so much control out of the lives of its victims. And for those of us sitting on the sidelines, it makes us feel helpless and desperate. Desperate to help out in any way possible.
It is hard to know how to truly help someone fighting such an awful disease, or how to help the caretaker. I want to be there, but I don’t want to intrude. I want to help, but I don’t want to be a bother. I want to tell them something encouraging, but I don’t know what to say. I must do something, but sometimes I end up doing nothing.
So, I spoke to some of my friends and family who are survivors. The ones who have given cancer a swift kick in the cojones or are kicking its butt right this second. I asked what were/are the best ways friends can help…and was there anything that didn’t. Here’s what I found:
+ Reach out and be positive: Everyone I spoke with said the large outpouring of love and support they received from friends and family was critical to getting their treatment off to a good start, and keeping them positive during the down days. Particularly to those patients who are immunocompromised or on bed rest, e-mails, texts and phone calls were sometimes the only contact they had with the outside world.
Sometimes keeping it simple is best when speaking to a cancer patient. “I’m so sorry” can be extremely effective, as could “Cancer Sucks,” “I’m coming over with alcohol,” “Let’s have cake,” and “I love you.”
But while support is needed, try to hold back from saying,“Everything will be OK” — at least at first. According to one friend: “It’s a natural statement to blurt out, but it makes the person shut down from feeling their fears and worries don’t want to be heard.” Keep it upbeat by asking general questions, and if you are unsure, just ask if he/she would like to discuss it. If they say no, give them the room and don’t take it personally.
+ Remember that cancer does not define them. Cancer patients and caretakers also want to talk about the things they cared about before the disease entered their lives, so don’t feel awkward sharing funny stories from the PTA meeting they missed, how ridiculous a conference call was, or how your arch-rival mistakenly plucked her eyebrow off. Sometimes a conversation about the mundane is all it takes to feel normal again.
My friend who beat breast cancer described a lovely encounter she had on the sidelines of her daughter’s soccer team one day. After asking if she was doing okay and getting the quick and dirty about my friend’s treatment, they went back to talking about the game. In her words: “It was beautiful to have someone not need to see it as drama-worthy, but jus a reality in a yep and move on sort of way. Back to soccer talk, just like the guys would do it!”
+ Gift cards rule: Yes, cancer treatments are expensive, but there often is an immediate increase in every day expenses, such as gas, groceries, new clothing for body changes due to treatment, etc. as well. I have a friend whose husband has taken time off from his job in order to care for their ailing son, so it can be a strain to cover expenses. Gift cards alleviate some of the financial burden to their family while enabling them to focus on what’s important.
+ Make them an offer they can’t refuse. Whether you are the friend of a patient or caretaker, try to avoid saying, “Just let me know if you need anything.” While this is nice and well-intentioned, most people don’t want to ask for help or can’t even think about what they need until they need it. One survivor told me friends and neighbors would leave freezer-ready dinners in coolers outside their front door, which was extremely useful, or do things such as drop off a dozen bagels every Sunday. Another friend told me her neighbors took care of their landscaping for a year while she focused on beating her thyroid cancer, including shoveling her walk and driveway before she even woke up in the morning.
+ Pool resources: Car pools, meal schedules, playdate coordination, and grocery shopping are all easy ways to help cancer patients and their families. Unfortunately, these can be a nightmare to coordinate. One mom who was fighting cancer was concerned her children would have to quit activities while she was in treatment. She tried to arrange carpools, but with ever-changing schedules, she felt overwhelmed. Instead, a friend stepped in and used a few web-based tools such as Find and Remind and Volunteer Spot to coordinate everything from meal delivery to car pools. Since it was all online, everyone who participated could schedule accordingly, and my friend felt confident that her children were always where they were supposed to be, allowing her to focus on getting well.
+ Set your alarm: I believe in prayer, karma, the power of positive thinking, good juju, and whatever else may help someone in need. Recently, a friend suggested we all set our alarms for 10 p.m., so we would stop what we were doing and send strong, healing vibes to a sorority sister about to begin fighting breast cancer. That means every single day I can do something to help her, and I know our collective strength will help her beat this.
+ Join the cause to beat cancer: Sometimes despite all our efforts, we lose a friend too early. But you can always participate in helping to find a cure. Fundraising, promoting awareness and early detection, advocacy, giving blood/platelets, sharing research and data — there are so many ways to help. And there is no greater way to honor someone’s memory than to help find a cure, which ensures no one else loses a loved one to cancer.
Do you have any tips for helping a cancer patient or their caretaker? Share them below!
Thanks to my too-many friends that shared these great tips. Keep fighting the good fight. We are all behind you!