The Definitive List of Dos & Don’ts When a Friend Has Cancer
Part Two (The Dos)
This post is the second in a three-part series. Find links to parts one and three at the end.
In November 2017, the Love of My Life was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And, because the universe didn’t think that was enough for us to juggle, a year later I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer.
Therefore, I write this post from a standpoint of both cancer patient and caregiver.
There are plenty of ways to help your friend with cancer.
Here is my insider list…
For Easy Reading, Download the Complete 3-Part Dos & Don’ts Cancer Series in PDF Format
Please do provide easy-to-prepare food.
One of the greatest gifts we received was a gift certificate from my husband’s employer for a local family-owned food delivery service. For me, it isn’t just about making sure my husband and I have healthy food choices, but for my kids as well.
Cooking a wholesome meal during this journey is the last thing on my list. Overall, lean toward providing bland and simple foods, e.g., chicken noodle soup, homemade bread, simple casseroles, etc. At times my husband and I have a low tolerance for spices of any kind, particularly garlic. Keep in mind, some cancer patients lose their sense of taste, i.e., everything tastes like cardboard.
Use Recyclable Containers
Be sure to bring your food in containers that don’t need to be returned. Otherwise, you’re adding something onto the ill individual’s plate, i.e., they now need to return your dishes. Instead, use recyclable containers such as tin pans or takeout containers.
Also, food can be given at any time during a cancer patient’s journey. Months into ours, a neighbor saw me out walking and gleaned that I had cancer. (I’m pretty certain the baldness gave it away.) She contacted me later and asked if she could bring a meal. I was thrilled to hear from her. We’re not close, yet neighborly. Her outreach uplifted me. Her timing was perfect as well, given that my husband had just had a treatment and I was heading into one.
If it isn’t obvious already, home-cooked meals are the number one thing I find helpful. Nothing compares to eating something fresh and warm that you didn’t have to make yourself.
BTW, if for some reason you want your food to “show” well, then gift the dish your food is prepared in.
– Reach out. If you’re not involved in the individual’s daily life, then every few weeks is reasonable. Anything more and it could become a burden for the receiver. Also, if you send an email, text, etc., and the caregiver or patient replies with a group message, don’t be offended. They’re likely overwhelmed, yet trying to be responsive.
– Reply to group communications. To save time, caregivers and patients often email updates to several people at once. Be sure to reply within a day or two. Also, avoid replying all. Why? First, it can appear as if you’re showboating. Second, most people are overwhelmed by too many emails. There are exceptions to the reply-all approach. For example, if it truly is a group message whereby the anecdotes of each person applies to the greater conversation, then certainly reply all.
Please do write down details.
If you ask your friend with cancer what their treatment schedule is, write it down.
This helps your friend in two ways:
1 – You now possess the details instead of repeatedly asking.
2 – You can now follow up in or around these timelines, thus showing your sincere support, e.g., I hope your treatment goes smoothly and quickly tomorrow.
– Research individual cancers. One of the greatest ways to show someone you care is to have a basic understanding regarding the type of cancer they have. Therefore, when your friend starts talking about their cancer, you’ll be able to carry the other side of the conversation, clearly showing your support.
The American Cancer Society® website is an excellent resource.
– Pick up prescriptions on treatment days. Generally speaking, when a cancer patient has a chemo treatment, they have blood work and see their oncologist immediately before the infusion. The doctor reviews that day’s blood work to make sure the individual is able to receive the infusion. For example, one reason for refusal could be low platelets. Often during these doctor visits, new prescriptions are written or refills given. If you pick them up, your tired friend can go directly home after their treatment. A simple text from your friend is all you need to help them.
– Share book ideas. Cancer patients rest a lot and on infusion days they may sit for hours at the treatment center. Reading helps pass the time. (See my recommended reading list in part three of this blog series for books that have inspired me throughout this journey.) Also, puzzles, crosswords, Sudoku are generally welcome. All help pass the time.
– Listen. Be that person who truly cares about the individual sitting across from them by listening well. Some people with cancer may not want to talk on any given day; try not to fill the silence. Simply watching a sporting event together can be comforting and supportive.
– Visit. Go to the person who has cancer. Sure, it’s perfectly acceptable to invite them to your home or to an event. They may be having a strong week and would enjoy the outing. However, if the person hasn’t positively reacted to your ongoing invitations, more than likely your offer isn’t working for them for whatever reason.
Try a different approach.
Please do bring animals when you visit.
Ask first, since it’s understood not everyone is an animal lover.
During my journey I’m finding the presence of animals especially therapeutic. I find their energy uplifting. For example, my daughter has three German shepherds. I experience immense joy when I’m in their presence.
Left to Right: Autumn, Mika and Nyxi
Me & my grand fur-baby Mika
Also, my daughter insisted we take in two long-haired guinea pigs. She rescues them. I initially resisted. The thought of taking care of another being created feelings of overwhelm. However, I now talk to them every night and check on them multiple times a day. My husband and I refer to them as the Dudes. I know, guinea pigs of all things! Clearly I’m losing my mind, or is that the chemo brain … LOL!
My daughter’s guinea pigs
Me meeting a llama at my local farmer’s market
– Help with young children. I’m grateful that my children are older, i.e., they can be left home alone. Others with very young children are not so fortunate. Still, there are endless ways to help families with young children caught in this situation.
For example, if you operate a daycare, perhaps you can take in a child temporarily. Or, if you know someone who runs a daycare, perhaps you can pay for a child’s short-term stay.
If you work from home and know others who do or are stay-at-home-parents, perhaps you can piece together a schedule whereby each person takes a turn watching your neighbor’s children. A simple shared Google calendar works well.
Also, many employers allow employees to donate a certain amount of hours each year. Have you used up your hours? Finally, if you have a nanny, perhaps they could temporarily watch another child.
– Run errands. Often a cancer patient can’t drive because they’re too weak. Given this, the caregiver is often uncomfortable leaving them. Therefore, offer to run their errands or stay with the cancer patient while the caregiver goes off shopping.
Before my own cancer diagnosis, there was roughly an eight-week period whereby I only left the house to take my husband to chemo treatments (we both work from home). He was extremely weak and I didn’t want to leave him alone.
– Buy gift cards. Specifically, find out where the individual’s cancer treatments are and buy a gift card to a coffee shop located in the building or on the same street. Many national coffee chains operate within large cancer treatment centers. Simply google the address and you’ll be able to see all of the eateries around the center.
Health challenges often lead to financial ones. Therefore, the following gift card types are most helpful:
- Food & Grocery
- Department Stores, e.g., Target, Walmart, etc.
- Pet Supplies
– Send cards and notes. Emails and texts are nice, yet nothing compares to the underlying care expressed through a handwritten note delivered via a U.S. postal worker.
– Talk about death. The most helpful conversation I had during my husband’s initial cancer journey was with an adult niece. She opened the door to a conversation regarding death, the only person who did.
This opportunity allowed me to discuss some of my most pressing fears. I felt settled after the conversation. Many people are uncomfortable talking about death. In fact, some create distractions so as not to speak of it, i.e., Oh don’t worry, you’ll make it through this; heartlessly minimizing a person’s genuine concerns. These words are an individual’s way of wielding logic, placing them further away from their own thoughts about death.
Understandably, most people fear death. Yet you only need to listen; you don’t need to provide answers.
I found this article insightful in terms of death-related talk: What Good Is Thinking About Death?
– See a therapist if you’re struggling. If you have someone in your life you’re close to and are having a difficult time with their diagnosis, seek the help of a qualified therapist. I did. At times I have despairing thoughts, and I’m not comfortable sharing them with anyone other than a therapist committed to my privacy.
– Find hyper-local support groups. Conduct research to help find a local support group for your friend. Hyper-local because your friend may find it tiring driving any distance.
Often, it can be uplifting being around others experiencing similar health challenges. These individuals are able to empathize with your friend’s situation in a way you can’t. Some may be doing well, which can help your friend stay positive.
– Offer to take people out. Those with cancer are often too weak to drive and are housebound. Offer to take them for a cup of coffee or a drive to the beach, mountains, wherever. Just get them out of the house! This also gives the caregiver a much needed break.
– Visit them in the hospital. First, check in with the caregiver before visiting anyone experiencing a hospital stay. It’s not always welcome, yet many times it is. For example, if someone is having a difficult time managing their pain, they’re likely not up for visitors. Also, it’s important to lower your voice when visiting. The Boston hospital my husband stayed at had two beds to a room; the man beside him was dying while his loved ones surrounded him.
Please do stop by on surgery day.
If you have a friend or client whose loved one will be in surgery for hours, stop by for an hour to break up their waiting (ask first). My husband’s Whipple surgery day started at 5 a.m. when we walked into the hospital. He was finally transported from recovery to his bed at 10 p.m. It was a long day. Call or text ahead and ask if your waiting friend wants coffee, lunch, etc.
Even better, just bring it. You know what they like.
As an aside, a dear friend’s husband recently had surgery. When I offered to sit with her during this time, she declined. Everyone is different. Some people like a lot of people around them during difficult times, while others want to be alone.
– Understand what anticipatory grief means. Often if an individual has a late-stage cancer diagnosis, both the patient and caregiver may experience anticipatory grief; essentially, they grieve before the actual loss. The grieving is often intensified when coupled with hope, ultimately resulting in extreme emotional highs and lows. The following is an excellent article that talks about anticipatory grief symptoms and actions to help oneself. If you’re a friend, associate or financial advisor of a cancer patient or caregiver, you’ll find it helpful.
– Bring small gifts. My personal favorites so far include a: cozy throw blanket, hypoallergenic earrings, funky headbands, handmade love quilt, writing journal and a bracelet with the following words engraved:
Surround this woman with love and light.
Keep in mind cancer patients and caregivers often have extreme tolerance issues with smells and textures. Be cautious gifting perfumes, scented hand lotions, etc. In general, focus on gifts that are soothing, cozy, and entertaining, e.g., movie, music, book, etc.
Overall, I recommend refraining from gifting scented-anything.
– Support causes. Many people fund-raise for causes that positively impact those they love, such as the annual bike-a-thon Pan-Mass Challenge. Try to support your friend or associate’s fundraising efforts. Even if it’s 20 bucks. The amount doesn’t matter, it’s the support and participation that matters. Many of us who have lost a loved one engage in fundraising activities to keep connected with them. Supporting individuals during their time of fundraising outreach can make a positive difference in their lives and perhaps yours as well.
– Share with balance. It’s perfectly reasonable to share the crappy stuff that’s happening in your life with a cancer patient, especially with someone who has been your steady ear for some time. In fact, they may welcome the distraction. Also, it’s important to acknowledge that the person with cancer doesn’t supersede your situation; no one’s life is more important than another’s. Still, find balance with what you share and perhaps take this opportunity during your friend’s health struggle to move up the self-actualization or self-improvement ladder. For example, if you’ve been ranting on and on for years about someone who disappoints you, perhaps it’s time to evolve past this frustration. After all, each of us is only getting older.
Consider using the cancer patient’s journey to inspire and catapult your positive change. Said differently, you probably have a decent, healthy life. Therefore, ask yourself how you can give back. Move beyond your needs to the greater needs of your community, ultimately gaining a greater sense of purpose and feelings of empowerment. There are people who live right next door to you who are deeply isolated and could use your help. Some days it’s me.
The support you provide during a friend’s cancer journey helps increase their emotional strength, empowering them to live their best life. The opposite is also true.
In reality, if you live within easy driving distance of the cancer patient, and all you can muster up is a text every once in a while saying, “Hi, how are you feeling? I’m thinking of you,” the ill individual comes to understand the limited value they hold in your life.
Know that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say.” Frankly, there are no words, and I make a living as a freelance financial services communications consultant.
In the end, showing up is the most important thing you can do to help someone with cancer or their caregiver, followed by providing rides and food as well as helping with kids, pets and household upkeep.
One Final Thought…
I keep a gratitude journal. I find it to be an ongoing uplifting experience and highly recommend the practice, especially if you’re on a difficult journey yourself. For example, I’m grateful that I was able to experience motherhood and that my two children are healthy and well down the path of independence.
My son and daughter on my daughter’s senior prom day. Max (14) left, Abby (18) right. Me in the middle, bald, wearing my trusty bandana. I tried a wig. It didn’t work for me.
3-Part Series Regarding Dos and Don’ts When a Friend Has Cancer
The above is the second post in a three-part series regarding the dos and don’ts when a friend has cancer.
Part one describes the don’ts when a friend has cancer, and outlines the beginnings of mine and my husband’s cancer journeys.
Part two describes the dos when a friend has cancer, actions by others that my husband and I found helpful during our cancer journeys.
Part three identifies helpful books and websites for caregivers as well as for individuals on cancer journeys. All offer thought-provoking concepts; many were healing. Some pertain to end-of-life care.