Several years ago, an acquaintance of mine died of breast cancer. We were not close friends but I had known her for years and our sons were good friends—they still are. What’s most important, though, is that I highly valued her as a person—she was simply one of those people who are plain good. I knew her cancer had returned and that she was terminal, and I kept intending to call her and tell her that she was important to my life. I didn’t call in time and I deeply, deeply regret how slowly I moved.
Why didn’t I just pick up the phone and call whenever the thought occurred to me? Part of me thought it would be an intrusion—she was sick, why would she want to talk to me? Part of it was fear—I didn’t want to call and hear she was too ill to talk, or worse. All of it, in retrospect, was stupid.
So, when a friend recently mentioned not knowing how to react to an acquaintance who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, I told her to do what I valued when I was sick:
• Visit. I cherished those times when my family and friends came to me. Those visits gave me courage, motivation, and strength, and brightened my life. One of my alums was in town and stopped by for a brief talk and he made me laugh and think about the world elsewhere. He emailed his alumni friends with a “thumbs up” on my outlook, prompting other alums to email me, which I loved. What was especially great was that, when he visited, my sister and brother were both here as well. I had a full house of people who cared about me. What an elixir!
• Call. If you don’t feel comfortable barging in, make a brief phone call. If your friend is not up to talking, tell her you’re thinking of her and ask her if there’s a better time to call again. I got several short calls from people at various levels of connection to me and they all perked me up. Never once did I think, “Why is this person bothering me?” I always used to worry about invading people’s privacy. Showing concern is not an invasion.
• Send cards. A good friend sent me a card every two weeks or so while I was going through treatment. They were often funny, even irreverent, and helped me keep my perspective upbeat. Now I know how it feels to open up an envelope and find it filled with caring thoughts, so when friends or acquaintances get sick, I make sure I send at least one card, with a note telling them they are in my thoughts and prayers, which they are.
• Emails work as well. I loved the chatty emails I got that expressed interest in my health but touched on broader issues. Funny comments were always welcome.
• Offer food, within limits. A neighbor stopped by with a fresh loaf of bread and I was warmed by that thoughtful gesture. A friend brought me a smoothie and sat down to chat while I drank it. I was not receptive to much food, though, partially because I was trying to eat healthy and partially because food did not always taste that good, so the bread and smoothie were bland and thoughtful choices. Roughly 60 percent of all women going through chemotherapy gain weight, so don’t tempt them with brownies. Pick up a bowl of fresh fruit instead.
• Do lunch. People going through treatment still like to get out and they still eat, although their appetite will probably be somewhat modified. Ask your friend to choose the restaurant. If she has no preference, go somewhere that keeps its food smells to itself—the odor of fried foods can be especially icky to a chemo patient. I have a highly sensitive nose and was occasionally even offended by the smell of mashed potatoes. I continued to enjoy the aroma of fresh coffee, though.
• Send flowers. A graduate sent me a fun bouquet with a “Thinking of you, Prijatel!” note, which was a cheerful surprise. I still have the vase—shaped like an ice cream cone—and it makes me smile and think of her every time I open that cabinet.
• Be normal. In general, don’t treat sick people like they are broken. Show that you care and are interested in their well-being, but try for as much normalcy as you can muster. Ask them about their illness and how things are going, listen well, and then talk about other things. That way, you acknowledge their illness, you show care and respect, and you open them up to thinking about things other than being sick.