Sunday, June 6, 2010

#175: How Can I Help My Friend Who Has Cancer?

"How can I help?" my friend asks me this every time she calls. I love her so much for that, but I really don't know what to tell her. Today I heard such helplessness in her voice. She wants to do something, but doesn't want to do the wrong thing. Again and again she says the loving words I have used myself at funerals and hospital beds.

"If there is anything I can do, please let me know."

I say it because I mean it. I was raised by a man who would drop everything for a friend in need. My dad would have been the man in the parable of the Samaritan who stopped and helped. Also, I was born under the sign of Leo the Lion. I am fiercely protective of the people in my circle. I know that my friend feels the same way about me.

Trouble is, I don't know what the hell to tell her. I can't make decisions these days. Asking me what I want for supper can send me into a rage of tearful frustration. I don't know what I want. All I know is how grateful I am when anyone reaches out to help, no matter what they do. A note, a blog comment, a facebook message, a phone call. Yesterday, someone brought a basket of food that we can prepare later. A friend from college showed up with a gallon of soup. A woman I have known since elementary school had a yard sale and sent us a check. An old acting buddy and five year survivor stopped by to share his own cancer stories. My neighbor, with whom I have probably exchanged 200 words in 10 years mows our lawn every week.

Some of these things are huge. Some are very small. But all of them share one thing in common. They remind me that I am alive. That I matter. That someone cares.

I'm so grateful for that.

What follows is not a wish list. Please, don't take it like that. These are links to resources I have found to help people who want to help. I'm probably not the only person you know who is surviving cancer. I sure won't be the last. Or maybe you and your family have lived through cancer treatment, too. Leave a comment on what helped (or didn't.) Together, maybe we can help the next family.

My Friend Has Cancer. How Can I Help?
Your friend has been diagnosed with cancer but you're the one freaking out: What can I do? How should I act? Is it OK to talk about it? What's "normal" now?

Things You Need to Know About Cancer, But Don't Really Want to Ask.
So just what are people supposed to do or say around people who are in the process of undergoing treatment to battle cancer, or to someone who has recently survived cancer? I certainly can't speak for everyone but here are a few things that people did for me, or things I wish they would have done or said, during treatment and after (in no particular order).

 Helping a Friend Through Cancer- Lori Hope
- "It's okay to say or do the 'wrong' thing."
- "I like to hear success stories, not horror stories."
- "I need to forget and laugh."
- "I need to feel hope."
- "Telling me to think positively can make me feel worse."

My Friend Has Been Diagnosed With Sarcoma - How Can I Help?
Patients and their families often have a hard time answering the question: "What can I do?" If they answer with a specific need, they feel as if they are imposing or asking too much. So take the guilt out of a gift by choosing something yourself. Here are some useful gift ideas that were developed by a group of sarcoma patients and survivors.

How to Talk to a Friend With Cancer
You are confronted with the possibility of death, and you are afraid. And, in a way, you are relieved it's not you. It brings up so many fears.

How to Help a Friend With Cancer
Remember, most of us don't look good in yellow. Lance Armstrong can trigger feelings of inadequacy in the best of us. Even his heroic name, straight from a Dickens novel, can make a girl feel puny and defenseless. Although I enjoyed reading about his ordeal and all those yellow jerseys after my treatment was over, early mentions of him made me wonder if I really had what it took to conquer the beast, or even if I deserved to win.


  1. Bob, I love this blog. I thank you for bringing these questions... I've always wanted to write this down somewhere, but where?? A close family member of mine has struggled with disfiguration on his face from his cancer. He has been stopped by strangers who say things like 'Oh my God! What happened to you?' (yes, people say that…) He doesn't go out much anymore... His most favorite reaction is when someone just talks to him normally, about anything going on in life-- their life, the world... he is fully aware of the condition and profile of his face. Mostly, the kindest thing to be said to him has no tone of pity or sympathy... it is a simple comment on the day, a normal conversation, one in which he is not the center of attention. Thank you for letting me say that...

  2. Last year my mom had uterine cancer, for which she had a radical hysterectomy and 3 weeks of radiation therapy. After the side-effects of the radiation wore off, she started getting better and stronger. She seems to be cancer-free right now.

    What seemed to help her most was to find women to talk with who had gone through the same experience. She's very wary of in-person groups of any kind, but she cautiously joined a message board for women who had the same medical experience. Even though she's never been one to talk with strangers, sharing her experience and hearing those of other women seemed to help her more than she thought it would. Even when not talking about cancer, she's found that small talk with these women lifted her spirits.

    What was very unhelpful was turning to unreliable sources of (pseudo) medical information to research her illness, which confused her. It was also unhelpful to read horror stories of former cancer patients who had negative hospital experiences. I know there's often a fine line between people recounting their experience and sharing horror stories, but the two affected my mom very differently.

    I hope this helps!

  3. Thank you so much for this beautiful Article

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. (oops. wanted to edit)
    My sister Gin just sent your blog to me. We met once several years ago when I was visiting her. So glad to have this to read as I'm thinking of you and holding you in the presence of the healing love of your friends and creator.

    Your indecision reminds me of the elderly I now care for. Having spent a good part of my life thinking it's best to offer folks choices, I find now that the old and tired often don't want choices. "What do you want for lunch?" can bring a groan. "Do you want the hot meal or the sandwich" is better. "I'd like to warm up the stroganoff for you. Is that okay?" is better still. And sometimes, "Here's lunch" is best of all.

    And I've found that when my own coping skills are stretched I'd rather not have to make decisions, and I've been grateful for an offer I can accept or refuse. Great neighbor, btw.

  6. In general I agree with the opinion of the author. A close family member of mine has struggled with disfiguration on his face from his cancer. This informative article. Thank you!


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