All About Friends

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to support a friend, acquaintance or colleague who is diagnosed with cancer. J and I learned that people can truly say the darnedest things. Sometimes you just have to laugh! But, if you don’t want to be that person saying the darnedest thing, here are some ways you can best support a friend and his or her partner dealing with cancer.

Do:

1-Listen.

2-Sit in silence.

3-Ask friend how you can help. (Offer specifics)

4-Pray for/with your friend.

5-Let friend cry on your shoulder.

6-Deliver a home-cooked meal (respect dietary restrictions/allergies/preferences).

7-Offer to clean, do laundry or other household chores.

8-Bake homemade treats for the family.

9-Send friend a daily/weekly/monthly text, email or to letter to check in.

10-Surprise friend with a bag of special goodies (magazines, lip balm, crossword puzzles, etc.).

11-Help with childcare and/or take friend’s child on a special outing (manicure? movie? ice cream?).

12-Offer to run errands (pick up dry cleaning? pick up a present for someone, deposit a check, pick up a prescription, etc.).

13-Offer to do research on a specific topic (specialist, hospital, procedure, medicine, nutrients, etc.).

14-Offer to accompany friend to medical appointment/scan/chemo treatment, etc.

15-Go on long walks with your friend.

16-Drive friend to hospital or medical appointments.

17-Sit with friend during surgery/procedures.

18-Share a funny story or memory with your friend.

19-Knit/crochet a prayer shawl or blanket.

20-Give friend a special reminder of your friendship–an amulet, a special piece of jewelry, a quote, flowers, etc.

21-Bring friend’s favorite meal/treat/drink to hospital.

22-Offer to make phone calls/send emails for friend.

23-Set up a meal delivery schedule for friend and family (Sign-Up Genius is great for this purpose!) https://www.signupgenius.com/ (inform participants of allergies/preferences)

24-Go to church/synagogue/temple with your friend.

25-Call to check in regularly.

26-Send friend handmade and handwritten cards.

27-Give your friend a shoulder massage.

28-Offer to sit at hospital/home so your friend can get a manicure/pedicure/massage/facial, etc.

29-Pamper your friend with a mani-pedi or hair styling in the hospital.

30-Pick up your friend’s favorite dish from a local restaurant.

31-Do chores around friend’s house (water plants, fold laundry, etc.).

32-Offer to drive friends of friends to and from airport or hospital.

33-Start a prayer chain or add your friend to prayer list (ask permission first).

34-Drive friend’s children to practices, play dates, school, etc.

35-Read aloud articles or chapters from your friend’s favorite magazine or book during recuperation.

36-Offer to set up a CaringBridge site or show a family member how it’s done.

Real tip #1:  Do something to help your friend! Don’t just ignore the elephant in the room (cancer). Find something concrete, practical and helpful you can do to help your friend and his or her family.

Don’t:

1-Say “Everything happens for a reason.”

2-Ask detailed medical or personal questions unless your friend signals she wants to talk about those issues.

3-Tell your friend about all the people you know who’ve died or are dying of cancer.

4-Openly question or express great surprise at your friend’s medical decisions.

5-Tell your friend about all your current medical conditions.

6-Overstay a visit (Do try to read cues and keep an eye on the clock).

7-Come to the hospital if you’re not a really close friend.

8-Ask what friend’s prognosis is/how long he has to live.

9-Ask what friend’s first symptoms were (this can be surprisingly difficult to talk about).

10-Ask what stage friend’s cancer is.

11-Talk or ask questions about the cancer in front of friend’s children, no matter their age.

12-Assume everyone in the room has the same information.

13-Stay for a visit when you’re dropping something off unless your friend asks/begs you to stay.

14-Say “I’m having a really hard time with this” to the cancer patient or partner.

Real tip #2: Read your friend’s cues. Don’t overstay a visit. Most importantly, don’t ask questions to satisfy your own curiosity. 

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The best article on being supportive to someone undergoing cancer treatment or any other life-changing event I’ve come across is entitled How Not to Say the Wrong Thing. In it, the authors, Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, explain The Ring Theory, a theory which purports that the most important factor in asking personal questions or making personal comments of a cancer patient is your relationship with that person. Know which ring or circle you are on and always remember to comfort in (to those closest to the patient) and dump out (to those on rings further away from the cancer patient.) In other words, if you’ve only known the cancer patient for a short time, or you have only worked with her sporadically on a committee or Board, you would be on one of the outer rings. If you see a close friend (further in) of the cancer patient crying, you would comfort that person. If you yourself are upset about how the cancer patient is doing or how she looks, you would express your fears or shocks to someone on your ring or on a ring further removed from the cancer patient. You would never express your own fears with the patient’s best friend or partner!

Real tip #3:  Remember the Ring Theory:  Comfort in, dump out. Choose carefully and purposefully with whom you share your own feelings if you want to be supportive of the cancer patient and family. Know your ring–partner, best friend, peripheral friend, colleague, mail carrier, etc, and act accordingly!

You know your friends, right? You can probably guess which way certain friends are going respond to you or your loved one’s cancer diagnosis before they even open their mouth. So, if you’re having a day where you’re craving some positive vibes, call your friend who’s most likely to say “You’ve got this! You can beat this! My nephew’s neighbor’s son-in-law was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer 10 years ago, and he’s still alive!” Some days that kind of cheer-leading might actually annoy you, but on others, you may really need the pep talk. Figure out who that friend is and keep her in your back pocket. But, if you’re in the mood to vent or cry or punch pillows, try calling on the friend you know isn’t going to say all those cheery things. Some days, you just want to be able to cry and say “This sucks.” Some friends are better at sitting with that than others.

Real tip #4:  Know your friends. Some friends are better at comforting, others are better and cheering you on. Know which ones are which so you can plan accordingly! They both serve important roles–just not in the same moment!

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(Above: Going out just for fun with friends and neighbors helped us feel supported and kept us from thinking about cancer all the time)

I came across this article from the New York Times recently which offers good advice about what not to say to a cancer patient and how to support a cancer patient in both word and deed. It also recommends other resources and books that can help you support someone dealing with a cancer diagnosis or treatment. (Disclaimer as of 12-18-16: I haven’t read the books recommended in the article–yet! If you read them, let me know what you think!)


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