I’ve often thought of sharing a list of “what not to say to someone who has cancer.” However, I’ve seen many of these lists before and I know they can be somewhat harsh and make people feel like there is not a single thing they can do that is right when someone they care about is sick. So instead, I think it might be more productive to do a “how to help someone who has cancer” list.
Anyone who has been following along since the beginning of the blog knows that I loooooved getting gifts while undergoing cancer treatment. Presents are awesome even when you’re feeling great, but they’re extra awesome when you’re feeling lousy. Sometimes the only thing that would make me smile on a terrible day was hearing the doorbell ring and seeing a box waiting for me. There was one day when I had multiple delivery trucks lined up in front of my house, and I felt extremely important. It didn’t even matter what the gift was, if it was something small or large, useful or just entertaining. It was the thought, and the unexpected surprise on an otherwise gloomy day.
So if you know someone who is dealing with an illness, send them something. Show them you’re thinking of them. Oh, but don’t expect a thank you card, because they have cancer, and don’t have the energy to deal with rules of etiquette.
I know some people feel like they don’t want to burden someone who has cancer and sometimes they think that leaving them alone is the best strategy. I can tell you that in most cases, this is not true. Sure, you might occasionally say the wrong thing, or you might write an email or leave a voicemail that never gets read or heard because the person is ill and exhausted and can’t keep track of anything. But I will tell you that silence or absence from a friend is a lot more hurtful than any dumb thing you could possibly say or do.
So send your friend a message to tell them they’re on your mind, and that they don’t need to respond. And don’t only reach out at the very beginning when you’re initially reacting to the shock of it all. Show that you’re still there, weeks, months later. Because that’s when it gets really hard. And really lonely. A cancer patient can never have too many friends.
3. SEND FOOD
There were many, many days where I simply did not have it in me to get groceries or make a half-decent meal. There were many days I couldn’t stand up for more than a minute, and standing is really helpful when grocery shopping or cooking. Apart from physical limitations, I also did not have the mental capacity to think about food and putting ingredients together.
Life for me and my husband was filled with stress 24/7 and there wasn’t a single second where we weren’t completely exhausted. People who sent us food were literally our life savers. We had some friends and family who would make complete meals that we could keep in the fridge and live off for an entire week. We had other friends send us gift cards for a food delivery service where we could order several flash-frozen meals and serve them up whenever we needed to. So if your friend is ill, send them food. Don’t ask what you can do. Don’t ask if they need anything. Don’t make them think. Just do it. Send food. And they will eat all of it. And they will love you forever.
4. LET THEM BE A BIG, WHINY, CRYING BABY
When I was feeling like I wanted to die, it was very helpful to be around people who let me feel that way. People who would let me cry, let me scream, let me blubber this is so unfaaaaair, I hate my liiiiiiiiiife, I hate everyoneeee, waaaaaaah JUST KILL ME NOWWWWW! I had a lot of these moments, and they were not my finest, but that’s just the kind of mood I was in while I was sitting around, bald, trying not to puke, staring out the window. The last thing I wanted to be told was to cheer up or keep a positive attitude or any of that bullshit. The best thing you can say is “this really sucks and I hate that you’re going through this.” Nothing you can say or do can make anything better. The best thing you can do is let your friend scream and cry and feel all the feelings they need to until they finally pass out from exhaustion.
I know, it’s not really fun being friends with someone who has cancer, right? But having cancer is actually worse, so suck it up, be a pal, and sit with your friend while she drips snot all down her face and makes morbid comments about death and funerals. Yay friendship!
5. DON’T OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME
This one is pretty simple, and you would think obvious. But for some people, it’s not, so I think it’s worth mentioning. When I was stuck at home for what felt like a million years, it was nice having friends and family visit. But it would take about ten minutes of socializing for me to feel like I needed a nap most days. I never want to tell anyone to leave, because it makes me feel like an ungrateful person. So don’t make me say it. Just leave!
The best friends are the ones who come (only after asking if it’s OK first), say hi, stay for a short visit, and then say “you should rest, I’m going to go now” without making me say it. Because truthfully, no one undergoing chemo is listening to more than 1/4 of anything you are saying to them. For me, I spent most of my social encounters thinking, How long until I can crawl back under my blanket and watch Marry Poppins while I cry without anyone seeing me?
Know your friend’s limits and respect them. Or, if you’re my brother and his girlfriend, you can just wait until I scream, GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HOUSE, which happened on more than one occasion. But we’re all still friends. I think.
18 thoughts on “Helping a friend in need”
I wrote a similar post last week, but yours is WAY better!
neighbours who knocked on my door and just said”are you ok?”. do you need anything? cut flowers from the grocery store. my favourite yogurt. friends far away who send goodie bags when local friends DISAPPEARED COMPLETELY. online quilting friends across canada who i have never met making me a quilt on the sly then mailing it to me…a friend who i have not seen in 35 years (other side of the country) knitted me a beautiful warm shawl/throw…no one brought me a meal which would have been nice. bring a tea and a cookie and leave after 15 minutes PLEASE. loan paperback books…so many people did nothing as they could not think of anything….come and sit with me and read while i nap….then make me a tea before you leave….it is so easy…and one of the BIGGEST supports for me was regular and sometimes daily emails from near and far telling me what you did today, what you ate and how much laundry you had to iron…just stay connected!!
Reblogged this on Randy Mellon and commented:
I really couldn’t have said this any better myself, so Stephanie, I hope you don’t mind me reblogging your post as I think we are totally on the same wavelength.
The thing that was the best for me was when I would come home and there were meals, cookies, muffins, noodle puddings, Frappacinno’s waiting. I was blessed by so many friends and family with all those, and baskets.
There were lots of baskets of goodies for my girls, and that was really wonderful. So much focus was on me, it was nice when someone remembered them. Or when someone took my husband out for a drink…he really needed it!
I found it hard, and still do to ask for help, and if people asked what I needed, I found myself saying, “nothing” all is good”. For me, it was better when people “just did it”, and I appreciated each an everyone of those goodies.
Hey Steph, Thanks for saying it all so beautifully. I agree with it all, particularly #5. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to do #4 in front of anyone but my husband…I am trying really hard not to burden others with my “blues”…particularly my daughters but it is really tough. All through chemo, I was fine but since the mastectomy 4 weeks ago, I have been down and prone to cry at the drop of a hat. The constant pain & discomfort in my underarm and not being able to use my arm freely has me so frustrated and tired. But that too shall hopefully pass. Thank you for your posts. 🙂
Hey Steph- Can I add these suggestions to our Pinterest board (http://bit.ly/1ag9MBc) if that is okay with you? Thank you for sharing this list, I think many will find it helpful.
Of course, please feel free!!
What a spot-on list. Whenever I’m unwell treats in the mail, gifts of food and good company go such a long way – as does rest and quiet. I hope this gets seen by those who want to help, but don’t know how. ~Catherine
Thanks Catherine 🙂
I feel the same way about those DON’T DO THIS lists… instead I like these, because most people are delightful.
Love this. Again, thanks for writing!!
wow! sometimes I read your posts and I think you’re in my head, as I thought all those same things going through chemo, and will probably do so through radiation as well. I was so appreciative of people dropping off food, still am! Especially since apparently even though I have messed up taste buds, my kids and husband still want to eat…imagine that! 🙂
Thanks Steph. Honestly I was going to send you an email today asking you questions about what you wrote about! xxoo
Stephanie – you are a gift to so many people. Thank you for all your amazing posts – I have read every one even though I have only written once before. I have followed your progress, your struggles and triumphs. I am happy that you are on the other side of yuck and beginning to enjoy life again. Today’s post is SO helpful – and I know many people will be grateful for what you have taught us, as am I.
A perfect list and I second all of it! Very well put. I have amazing friends, family and acquaintances who did all of the above, and I am so very grateful. There were a few times when some people stayed too long, but I survived.
you know, it was the week of my 21st birthday my parents told me they couldn’t get me anything cause my Dad has terminal cancer. I’m 26 now and all the chemo has been done and we are literally playing the waiting game while doctors come up with a way to help him feel as comfortable as possible until….then. I’ve always found it a little tough to be emotional with my parents, though i can write anything in a text or letter. Last year I wrote him a letter asking him all the questions “are you scared, does it hurt yet”. but now i don’t know what to do. He’s not a very talky person and as far as I know his only passions in life are his job on the farm and me. what do you give him. I just feel useless. (also when he has treatment at the hospital, my mum prefers to go shopping which i guess is how she deals, and i ask if he wants me to stay with him, but he says no, is he lying?) my gawd, i’m writing you a letter, sorry. what am i saying? right, what can i do for him?
ps: i love you 😀
Hello! I’m sorry to hear about your father, and I can imagine that must be really hard on you. I can tell you care a lot about him so you are probably already providing him with a lot more support than you realize. As for chemo, maybe just tell him you’d really like to be there for his treatment, and see if he’s okay with that, rather than asking if he needs you to be there? Sometimes people don’t like to admit they need any sort of help, I know I feel like that sometimes. I’m sure he’d like the company.
Best wishes for you and your father…xx
thank you so much xx sorry i had a sook on your shoulder. i’ve read your entire blog and i think you’re amazing. i also feel like i’m talking to a famous person 🙂 thank you again xx
This is an awesome list Steph! I definitely agree with you on this, especially numbers 2 & 4!