This time last year I was starting a long and aggressive treatment strategy for Breast Cancer that included two surgeries, twenty weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. I was forced to balance the life I had planned with my husband and two young children with a whole new role in healthcare.
My friends and family were anxious to help and asked me how they could, but I didn’t have any answers for them. It was hard to consider all the things I would no longer be able to do for myself, and it was even harder for me to let go of control and accept the help I truly needed. Then the treatment started, and I was left in survival mode. I was so grateful for anything that people would offer, whether it was a kind word, a ride, a playdate or meals for my family.
Now that I’ve had a little distance to think about it I came up with a list of how to be supportive in a friend’s time of need that I hope you find helpful (or show it to your friends so they can help you!) Because I knew all along that behind every text, or flower or meal there was love, concern and the best of intentions.
1) Bring Food – but be mindful. Let one person be the organizer that finds out when meals would be helpful and puts together a schedule. There is a free website called Meal Train www.mealtrain.com that makes the process a lot easier for everyone. Pay attention to dietary restrictions, keep in mind that kids are picky eaters so keep it simple, and keep it small – just enough for one meal unless you have contributed freezer safe containers that do not need to be returned. I wanted to cry and kiss the people who gave us simple serving sized portions of food in disposable containers.
2) Listen - Listen to what the needs are, and if it’s not what you expect, don’t take it personally. One friend heard that cancer patients might cave up and isolate themselves, so she kept trying to take me out for walks. After a few declined invites she was starting to get concerned and asked me about it. I was touched by the whole thing and explained that while my dog, Maverick, would appreciate a walk, I was using any and all of my limited energy for being with my children and I would let her know when I had enough strength to go for walks again. Each person has their own individual experience, so in order to help you really need to listen to hear what they need, beyond your own expectations.
3) Don’t offer medical advice – Your friend has probably gotten all the advice she needs from her team. What a naturopath told your mother to do when she had cancer might not apply to your friend. And it is quite likely that she is already feeling guilty for all the sugar, gluten, dairy and plastics she has consumed over the course of her life, so this advice might have the unfortunate consequence of implying that she could have done something to cause her illness. We’ve all eaten the same junk, some of us were just unlucky.
4) Be present, unless they need space – Sometimes the best thing someone would do was just to show up. They showed up at a chemo session with light hearted conversation and for afternoon visits on the patio to let me cry it out if I needed to. Once a friend showed up with a meal and when she saw the panic on my face, shuttled me into the bedroom to tell me privately and away from my children that I would get through this. These are the things that made all the difference in the world. Equally as important was the simple text to check on me, and when all I could respond was a single word or an emoticon, they understood that is when I needed my space alone to heal, because ultimately the path must be walked alone.
5) It’s not about you – Please don’t be offended if your friend does not respond to your panicked voicemail demanding details, or turns down an offer for help. She could be fighting for her life, and the last thing you intend to do is to add to her burden. On a related note - don’t ask either the person in treatment or the caregivers to do anything, even if it’s something you think would be helpful for them. I’m sorry, they can’t. They love you and appreciate you, they just might not be able to deal with you at certain times. It’s not personal. I promise.
6) Be Positive – Be the cheerleader. Be the person who says how much you admire your friend’s strength and grace. Be the hand holder to an empty hand and have a tissue ready to pass along, or for yourself.
7) Know that sometimes even in the most tragic circumstances there is beauty. You can be the one to see it.