Recently, as many of you Dear Readers know, a very close friend of mine told me he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. As I tried to process this unexpected news, my first reaction was to tread carefully. Obviously, my pal needed my moral support and freaking out would not be helpful.
Since our first chat about his cancer, I’ve been looking into how best to handle the situation – for both of us. I keep reminding myself that no matter how hard it is for me to accept this sobering information, it has to be ten times harder for him to live with it.
During our phone conversations, I try to “keep it real” and speak plainly about everything, as we have always done. Fortunately, my friend, an eternal optimist, has already decided to beat the Big C. His upbuilding attitude steers me away from darker thoughts.
Frankly, it should be the other way around and I’m working on that. The following are some other tips I’ve gleaned on how to talk to someone you know with cancer.
If you live or work near the person with cancer, offer to help perform daily tasks and chores – but never show up unannounced. People who have been mostly healthy all their lives may feel uncomfortable asking for help with shopping, laundry or child care. If the other party agrees, draw up a list of what needs to be done and decide together how you could assist.
Before you set out to a store, ask your friend if you can pick up anything for her or him while you are out and about. Just make sure you have the time and energy to follow through. It’s perfectly okay not to offer to go the extra shopping mile. But never promise what you can’t deliver.
Ask permission before you drop by your friend’s home, office or hospital room – and be gracious if the answer is No. Remember that the other person is genuinely sick and may be suffering from both physical discomfort and emotional swings. Don’t become upset if plans you’ve made together have to be canceled because your friend isn’t up to the effort.
Never take a canceled plan as a sign of rejection. This isn’t about you, after all. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment. Remain calm and reassuring, even if you can’t manage to be cheerful. The simple phrase, “There, there,” can be quite therapeutic, believe it or not.
Whether you show up on the doorstep or engage in a phone conversation, be conscious of the other person’s needs. Avoid overstaying your welcome by checking periodically to see if your friend needs a time-out. You can always come back at another time.
People with cancer have to cope with curious and well-meaning family members and friends (like you) on a daily basis. Repeating the same news can be tiring so consider setting up a phone tree where your friend calls one person who calls several others who call several others, and so on. Be as accurate as possible when relaying status information.
Listen more and talk less. Don’t forget who the patient is. Be forthright when you feel uncomfortable or even awkward about starting a dialogue. There is absolutely no shame in revealing how you feel. In fact, your discomfort might help your friend talk about hers (or his).
Let your friend lead the conversation whenever you have doubts about what to discuss. Does talking about seeing doctors and undergoing radiation or chemotherapy make your buddy feel better – or worse?
While many people are living with cancer, each one is an individual whose condition is unique. Avoid comparing your friend’s situation with someone else’s, even if there was a positive outcome. Instead, ask, “How are you doing?”
It’s natural to want to help your friends who have cancer. But don’t start hauling over pre-cooked meals and snack treats unless you know these are allowed. Some illnesses have dietary restrictions or produce nausea after eating. Absent allergies or a weakened immune system, flowers can be a great way to say, “I care about you and your health.” Puzzles, games, books, and movies might be appropriate, too.
Great gifts for a friend diagnosed with cancer include gift cards or certificates for house cleaning, dry cleaning or even a relaxing massage. Make a scrapbook from pictures of the patient’s family, friends, and pets. Add some motivational quotes and recall humorous incidents and happy memories that your friend can enjoy while alone.
Keep supporting your friend with cancer after the initial shock of the diagnosis has faded. Even if you have recovered your equipoise, the other person is still coping with that reality every day. Don’t be a “fair-weather” friend. Be there when times get tough.
Finally, extend your assistance to the patient’s family and friends since they are working hard to help out. Offer to step in so someone else can take a break from washing the dishes or walking the dog.
The best thing you can do for someone in distress is to open your heart and express compassion. In some cases, opening your wallet to help pay care costs may be suitable (if you can afford it).
Above all, respect your friend’s wishes and boundaries. Be a “flexible rock” if you can: strong yet kind and yielding.
There, there. You got this.