How to be helpful when your friend has cancer. by Susan McCamey
A lot of articles talk about the logistical ways you can help friends with cancer, like delivering meals and helping with housework and errands. But I haven't read as many articles about how to help with the emotions of cancer. So here is some advice from a woman who has Stage Four Breast Cancer.
Cancer can be a very lonely thing. It's pretty damn isolating. It's difficult to convey how very alone you feel even with a lot of love. Other people just can't understand how difficult it is to live with this disease hanging over your head. It's uncomfortable for most people to talk about so you don't talk to people at length about your treatment or the side effects or your prognosis. They don't tend to ask. I guess that's understandable on one level but it's also kind of hurtful and isolating. Something that affects you every single day on every level is something you just can't talk about much.
When you know you're going to die and life will go on without you you can't help but imagine the people in your life eventually adapting to the loss and having a good time in the future. It's irrational and ego-based but it kind of hurts. This is embarrassing to admit. Because you're the one with cancer, with the medication side effects, and chronic pain, and low energy levels you are made aware multiple times a day that there will come a time when you will no longer be around. The people you are with can't possibly know this. It's a sad realization that you are frequently completely alone with, so you find yourself shaking it off and just pressing on. (Just to be clear, you also WANT them to eventually move on and love life.)
When you have a terminal disease you want to have your friends and loved ones tell you how much they're going to miss you. You need them to say "I don't want to lose you." You want to be cherished and you want them to value the time they have left with you. You get pretty hyper sensitive about people not making time for you.
Then when you are with your friends and family you feel like you don't want to be a bummer so you try to act upbeat and as inspirational as you possibly can. People talk about the brave cancer patient who goes through it all without a complaint but nobody wants to be around the cancer patient who is being a drag.
There are times when I just want to say to my friends and husband, "Do you have any idea how difficult this is?" It's not that I'm mad that I have cancer and they don't and I've never done the "why me" thing but sometimes you just want other people to know how you feel and you think the only way is if they are in the same boat. And if you ever feel they judge you for handling it badly it's difficult not to feel like they just don't have a clue. You want people to say you are doing a good job dealing with all this and they see your emotional strength.
So here's the takeaway:
- Ask them about their treatment - it is a huge part of their life. Let them talk about it as much as they need to and ask follow-up questions and be present when they are answering your questions. Don't look at your phone and show interest and concern. Know when important events like scans are coming up because those are going to be the most trying times for your friend. Wait for the scan results with them and let them know you are there for them to process their feelings about the results.
- Tell them how much you are going to miss them. Tell them how afraid you are to lose them. Tell them your death will leave a hole in their life.
3. Make time for them. Spend time with them and put effort into planning special events to attend together to make
wonderful memories. Be present with them during these events.
4. Tell them you see how much strength they have to deal with their illness and all the
ramifications. Tell them you think they are doing a good job handling it. But also tell them
they don't always have to be strong. Listen to them when they are struggling and suffering
and remind them that it's normal to struggle and suffer.
If you have ever not known what to do, now you know. You have no idea what a gift this will be to your friend.
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