I was given three copies of Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2003. I’m sure my well-meaning friends thought the book would be inspiring and offer a nice distraction, but reading about gruelling chemotherapy sessions while going through gruelling chemotherapy sessions? Not so inspiring. There are far better ways to help.
Hearing about a friend’s cancer diagnosis is shocking and gut-wrenching. And because we’re often afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, we may opt to be supportive from afar—especially if it’s someone whose situation we closely relate to, like a mom at our child’s daycare or a good friend of the same age. Our minds quickly fill with worst-case scenarios, which can paralyze us into inaction.
When Rebecca Stanisic’s husband, Andy, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2010, having family and friends close by was critical. Suddenly having to care for her husband in addition to her two young children meant the Ottawa-based mom had to rely heavily on others. “Luckily, I was already at home and not working, and my parents had just moved close to us,” Stanisic says. “We had a great support system already in place.” And for Andy, thankfully now in remission, that support meant he was able to concentrate on getting well again. “Knowing our kids were well looked after, especially during heavy treatment weeks, made it easier to focus on getting through a very intense chemo regime and recovery,” he says.
You may feel anxious and insecure about how to best help a friend diagnosed with cancer, but there’s plenty you can do to offer support.
Create a chemotherapy care package with cozy slippers, a warm blanket, unscented hand cream (fragrances can be nauseating and many hospitals and cancer centres are designated scent-free), magazines and books, an iTunes gift card and DVDs or a subscription to an online movie service. For Christy Maund-Lawson, a mom of one from Burlington, Ont., who recently finished treatment for breast cancer, one of the best gifts she received from a group of friends was a “sunshine box.” “It was full of presents for me, like socks, moisturizer, money for parking and gum, plus gifts like Lego kits, books and other treats for my son,” Maund-Lawson says. “On a day that was tough, we could open something from the box to help ‘fill the day full of sunshine.’” Not only was she grateful for her friends’ thoughtfulness, it meant a lot to have her son included in the thought as well.
Feed the Family
Pool funds from friends and buy gift cards to the family’s favourite restaurants so they can get takeout, or set up a rotating meal schedule to fill their freezer. Keep the children in mind by including kid-friendly meals and treats, and quick-grab options. “When Andy was having chemo, our family and friends helped with the kids and would drop off meals,” Rebecca Stanisic says. “Knowing there was food in the fridge was a huge relief.” For Maund-Lawson, having a “meal train” organized by friends meant she never had to think about what was for dinner. “It was also great when people dropped off snacks, like homemade cookies, cut up fruit and veggies, and cheese and crackers.”
Read more: Survivors Moving Beyond Breast Cancer
Inject Some Fun
Offer to host playdates, set up day trips or hold movie nights with the kids, especially on treatment days. Your friend will welcome the time to rest and appreciate that the kids are having fun. And keeping a sense of normalcy is also important for a family faced with a cancer diagnosis. As Andy Stanisic says, “Dealing with cancer and getting through treatment does at times require a singular focus. But other aspects of life don’t have to come to a stop.”
Take the Time
Every day for three weeks I drove to the hospital for radiation. It was boring and tedious, so I was grateful when a friend offered to join me. Having a treatment buddy broke up the monotony of the schedule, was a perfect opportunity to catch up on non-cancer life and gave my significant other a break.
Stay in Touch
Call often, email every time your friend pops into your mind and send snail mail after every round of treatment or milestone. I still have a stack of greeting cards filled with meaningful messages I received after treatments. And don’t worry about grand gestures—the small things count, too. “Sometimes the little things meant the most,” Maund-Lawson says. “Like dropping off a tea, sending a quick email or checking in with my husband to make sure he had someone to talk to.”
Stick to a Schedule
Set up a system with others to take care of your friend’s errands, like drycleaning, laundry, gardening, pet walking and the kids’ school drop-off and pickup. Child psychologist Huzur Altay, PhD, explains that for kids, consistency is key. “Maintaining structure is very importtant,” Dr. Altay says. “The more chaotic the situation, the more children need predictability.”
Say (Almost) Anything
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If your friend doesn’t want to talk about it, she’ll tell you. Just try to avoid teary “you’re going to be fine” platitudes, or comparisons to your cousin’s wife’s brother, who also had cancer. Your friend may end up having to console you.
As for what not to do, asking “What can I do to help?” tops the list. It’s thoughtful, but it puts pressure on your friend to come up with ideas. Just take the initiative—she’ll thank you for it. Also, think twice before gifting flowers or plants. They’re beautiful to look at, but require extra care. And stagnant flower water can contain bacteria, which could be unsafe when immunity is low due to
chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
So what was one of the best things a friend did for me? She showed up with a card that made me laugh so hard I cried, as well as my favourite ice cream. You can never go wrong with a pint of ice cream—or two.