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.