The Definitive List of Dos & Don’ts When a Friend Has Cancer (PART 1)
I dedicate this post to cancer patients and survivors as well as to life’s advisors, including financial advisors, mental health counselors, medical specialists, and the many more who strive to help others live their best life.
Please share this post with clients and friends.
This is a three-part series. Find links to parts two and three at the end of this post.
For Easy Reading, Download the Complete 3-Part Dos & Don’ts Cancer Series in PDF Format
For the last two weeks you’ve felt a persistent pain in your upper abdomen. Finally, you call your primary care doctor and she tells you to go to the hospital. A few hours later, you walk out shell shocked after the ER doctor said you have a mass in your pancreas.
I’ve had a near experience with the above scenario. 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, in December 2018 I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer.
Therefore, I write this post from a standpoint of both cancer patient and caregiver.
(My husband Gary Dingman lost his fight with pancreatic cancer. He passed away on June 28, 2020. He was 58 years old.)
To say the past many months have been intensely stressful simply doesn’t cut it.
Understandably, many of us have a difficult time being around someone who is ill or dying, and often struggle with what to say or do.
With this in mind, here’s my insider list of dos and don’ts when you know someone who has cancer or is a caregiver. Whether it’s a friend, family member, colleague or client, please consider these recommendations.
Let’s start with the don’ts. There are plenty.
– Say “I haven’t heard from you.” Never expect the caregiver or the person with cancer to keep you informed. If you want information, contact them. You should absorb all unnecessary burdens, particularly communication.
– Whisper. There is no need to soften your voice when you’re speaking with someone about their cancer. There is no shame in having cancer and, therefore, no need to murmur, which often projects a tone of unwelcomed pity.
– Gift plants. Fresh flowers are fine. However, plants need tending to long term. Unless you’re certain the individual loves plants, refrain from gifting anything that places responsibility onto the ill individual or caregiver.
Also, it’s inconvenient to transport gifts home from the hospital, i.e., my husband and I took a Lyft home after his surgery.
When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. – Epictetus, A Manual for Living
– Avoid people with cancer. They’re struggling, and your absence is isolating to them. Instead, treat others how you would want to be treated in such a situation, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel. Place your focus on the ill individual rather than superimposing their issues onto yourself, and your discomfort will ease.
– Avoid eye contact. If you run into someone with cancer in your neighborhood or office, look them in the eyes. Otherwise, it can be hurtful for the individual with cancer. Particularly because those with cancer often don’t look well. Avoiding eye contact only emphasizes that fact for them.
– Give advice. Unless you’re an oncologist, radiologist, pathologist or similar, refrain from giving feedback regarding medical treatments or commenting on dietary needs. Minimize your perspective; no one likes a know-it-all.
– Visit long. If the cancer patient is weak, stay for a short while and then leave. Individuals with cancer often need to rest frequently; it’s awkward to do so when you linger. Ask the caregiver for guidelines.
Look for opportunities that arise during challenging events. For example, in anticipation of my treatments, I didn’t know how I’d feel or how much energy I would have during the process. Therefore, I decided to learn how to grow a potted vegetable garden. I thought it would be something fairly easy to maintain, yet encourage me to get outside every day. It turned out to be a great decision. My garden draws my attention and provides me joy and comfort.
Another Example: If you’re laid up due to surgery, take this opportunity to review your business and marketing plans.
– Stop invitations. No matter how you think the ill individual is doing or what the emotional state of the caregiver is, continue to offer invitations to dinner parties, cookouts, baby showers, spa days, etc. The key is that you include the individual with cancer and the caregiver. Allow them the opportunity to attend or decline.
– Visit when you’re ill. Individuals receiving cancer treatment typically have a weakened immune system. Your mild cold could wreak havoc on their life. Frankly, it could put them in the hospital. If in doubt, ask.
– Make it about you. If you ask the caregiver or individual with cancer out to lunch and they’re not readily available, or you offer food and it’s declined, don’t be offended. It’s not about you. They may be overwhelmed, tired, in a somber mood, resistant to smells, or have no appetite.
– Always focus conversation on cancer. Certainly ask how your friend, client or other is feeling, but then move on to more mainstream conversation. This helps the ill individual experience normalcy.
– Lie. Avoid saying, “You look good” when the person doesn’t. Instead say, “It’s good to see you.”
Don’t EVER say:
- It’ll be okay.
- I know how you feel.
- You should try/do…
- Should you really be doing…
- There must be a reason for this.
- Wow, you’ve lost/gained weight.
- Things happen for a reason.
Here’s my favorite thing not to say; it was sent to me via text:
Your husband is a sinner, he needs to give himself up to God in order to get better.
Imposing religious views upon an ill individual is selfish, given that they’re often weak, vulnerable, and unable to represent themselves.
– Reminisce about your own cancer experience. It’s okay to mention you’ve had cancer. Still, don’t drone on and on about your past experience. It’s bad enough that a person has cancer; they don’t need to hear about your dreary bout. Unless you’re asked for details, keep conversations upbeat.
– Post cancer-related comments to social media. Some people like to put their challenges out there, while others don’t. This choice belongs to the cancer patient.
– Wear perfume or cologne. Smells can be overwhelming to an ill individual. Refrain from using them around people who are not feeling well.
– Repeatedly tell others so-and-so has cancer. This creates an inordinate amount of inquiries aimed at the patient or caregiver. It’s a personal choice as to how one wants to share their health news, if at all. Therefore, ask first, e.g., May I let your cousins know?
Please don’t mention your busy schedule.
We’re all busy, it goes without saying. Refrain from talking about your busy schedule when offering help to a cancer patient. When you reference your busy schedule, essentially what you’re doing is giving yourself an out while trying to appear concerned.
Keep in mind that a cancer patient has little control over their schedule; medical experts are seen when they’re available. Also, when a person is on a cancer journey, it’s the one time in life when your schedule isn’t necessarily a reflection of your values, other than the fact that you’d like to live longer.
Meanwhile, a healthy individual’s schedule is a reflection of their priorities and values.
Please don’t expect someone to be home in order to drop something off.
I personally found this exhausting. Our loved ones try to be helpful, but in doing so can often place a burden on us by trying to isolate a time we’d be available.
Perhaps you’re thinking this sounds reasonable? Yes, on the one hand it is, i.e., people simply want to drop off food and show their support. Yet, multiply this request by 10 or more and now perhaps you’ll see that managing such activity can be overwhelming.
Frankly, I almost deleted the above paragraph because I don’t want you to delay spending time with a cancer patient or caregiver. Instead, my goal is to make you aware of extra stresses that arise during cancer journeys and to help those on this journey experience balance. Therefore, when trying to deliver something to a cancer patient, also offer to leave it on the front porch or similar. At minimum, open this dialogue in case there is a need, e.g., “I have some chicken soup I’d like to bring you, may I visit for a bit or would you prefer I leave it on the front porch?”
As an aside, chemo-treatment weeks are when cancer patients often need you the most, compounding the situation, since they’re not feeling well enough to manage the help they’re receiving.
– Cancel. If you offer a ride, do not back out even if you’re experiencing extenuating circumstances. Instead, find someone to replace you. Cancer patients can’t skip their treatments. And quite often they can’t drive due to being too weak or negatively impacted by medications. While my husband and I regularly use Lyft when we can’t drive for each other, many others can’t afford this approach.
My husband and I are working throughout our cancer journeys. When someone commits to driving him to a hydration appointment, I book several conference calls for that day. A last-minute cancellation causes havoc.
– Repeatedly say you’re sorry. It’s perfectly reasonable to say to someone who isn’t feeling well that “you’re sorry.” Still, don’t overdo it. My husband and I ran into an individual who must have said I’m sorry at least 10 times within an isolated five-minute conversation. It was awkward. Mind you, I get it. Some may find our situation a bit extreme. For example, we’re both bald, which could rattle a person who unexpectedly runs into us.
Please don’t say, “Let me know what you need.”
This statement is empty. It places the burden on the ill person or the caregiver. Also, many people are uncomfortable asking for help.
-May I bring a meal over this week that you can easily reheat?
Be highly aware of dietary restrictions and sensitivity to smells. For example, my husband can’t eat fatty foods. After surgery, very little of his pancreas remains. It’s the organ that produces enzymes needed to break down fatty foods. Also, watch out for spices. Many cancer patients can only tolerate bland food.
-Can I bring you to an appointment this month?
-May I spend a couple hours cleaning your house this week?
-Would you like me to sit with you during one of your appointments?
-Do the kids need rides? I’m available every Wednesday after school.
-May I take your kids to the movies, playground, etc., this Tuesday?
-Would you like to go for a walk tomorrow?
-May I research some things for you, e.g., best foods for increasing energy?
-May I walk your fur-baby on Thursday mornings?
-Want to go to the Farmer’s Market tomorrow?
-Would you like help on trash night?
-Do you need anything at the pharmacy or grocery store?
-There’s a big snowstorm tomorrow, may I shovel your walkway?
As an aside, there was a blizzard the evening before my husband and I were to be in Boston for his 10 a.m. appointment to remove his take-home chemo treatment pump and receive fluids. Needless to say, I woke the next morning with trees blocking my driveway. It was an immensely stressful time. Thankfully, my chainsaw-wielding-four-wheel-driving-ex came to our rescue. Yes, I see the humor … 🙂
The key in offering your help is to be specific. Once you suggest a few specifics, then offer a general, “Or anything else you may need.”
Overall, if you’re at a loss in terms of how to help, focus on what you’re good at, e.g., knitting a warm hat, painting landscapes, walking pets, styling hair, etc. (My husband will sometimes wear a winter hat in bed during the summer months because he’s freezing due to his chemo treatments.)
Perhaps you’re a financial advisor. You could help the cancer patient with revising their household budget, optimizing employer benefits or isolating how their financial picture may change if they need to take short or long-term disability.
Keep in mind that if you say the words, “I don’t know what to do…,” you’re essentially placing your burden onto the person who isn’t feeling well.
Please don’t quit.
Please don’t give up on cancer patients or caregivers. Understandably, retreat for a bit to recharge, but come back. Sometimes a cancer patient’s journey is long. More than likely, it’s draining asking the individual with cancer the same old question, “How are you feeling?” when you’re trying to be considerate.
Also, you may find yourself unsure of how to continuously help. Those feelings may be compounded when looking from the outside and seeing people who appear to be getting it done on their own.
Generally speaking, appearances can be deceiving.
Speaking from experience, it’s difficult to ask for someone’s help when they have a full-time job or are raising a young family. For them to assist, they need to take a vacation day or ask someone to watch their kids, creating a burden for them.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to lift this encumbrance. Also, by not quitting, you’re paying it forward. I believe my husband is helping others by participating in a clinical trial. Someday, lives may be saved, perhaps yours, from his openness to participate in an exercise filled with unknowns.
An inside look at a cancer patient’s treatment schedule.
The beginning of my husband’s initial cancer journey was intense. Over the course of nine chemo infusions administered biweekly, we went into Boston every other Tuesday for his treatment and returned Thursday of that same week to have his take-home chemo pump removed.
What’s more, he wasn’t managing the chemo well and was extremely dehydrated. (He was on some seriously intense medication.) Therefore, we headed back into Boston every Saturday and Monday post treatment weeks so he could receive fluids intravenously.
As an aside, driving into Boston is a nightmare. You take your life in your own hands every time you get in your car. I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve almost been run off the road, cut off, etc. And, what should be a 30-minute drive is usually a 90-minute drive due to traffic. This said, I’m deeply grateful to have access to some of the most amazing health care in the world only 90 minutes from me! Yet I can’t stress enough how much all of the driving increases the stress of this health journey. (If you want to help someone, drive them.)
After chemo, my husband went on to have 28 days of radiation and then finally a surgery. After all of this, he was set free for about six months…
Enter my cancer diagnosis: Surgery, followed by 28 days of external radiation, four rounds of internal radiation, then four rounds of chemo over the summer. Gratefully, I’m doing well.
Ultimately my husband had a reoccurrence. Pancreatic cancer is a real bear. It’s an extremely defensive disease and, therefore, difficult to rid the body of.
His current treatment is slightly better, whereby the chemo is more tolerable, although he’s on a very low dose since his body is having a difficult time handling the repeated treatments. As of this writing, he goes into Boston every other Tuesday for a treatment, plus the first Thursday of the month he receives a trial drug and the opposite weeks of treatment he goes into Boston for a platelet booster shot. In general, he feels like crap for a handful of days post treatments.
Like I said, these journeys can be long. Don’t quit on your friends. Take a pause, regroup, but come back.
3-Part Series Regarding Dos and Don’ts When a Friend Has Cancer
The above is the first 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.