How to Help a Friend with Cancer

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Heather (right) and her family.

By Heather Erickson

We discovered the hard, swollen lymph nodes above my husband, Dan’s, left collarbone in October 2012. Both of us knew that something was wrong and in the short time leading up to the doctor’s appointment, we did exactly what everyone tells you not to do; we scoured the internet.

Everything we read said metastatic cancer—most likely lung. We kept searching. It couldn’t be lung cancer. Wasn’t that something only smoker’s got? We soon found out that anyone can get lung cancer. Dan was diagnosed with stage IV, non-small cell, adenocarcinoma. Our world turned upside down. Our daughters were just 14, 10 and 8 years old at the time.

The negative response to our situation took us by surprise. Some people said the most inappropriate things. Usually, they did it thinking they were being helpful, but it was painful.

Worse yet, friends who we thought would always be there for us, disappeared. For a while, we felt incredibly alone.

Even more surprising were the people we hardly knew, who seemed to come out of the woodwork being so generous with their time, love and prayers. It was their thoughtfulness that raised our spirits in this difficult time.

I soon decided that most of the time an inappropriate (or lack of) response, comes from not knowing what to say or do, to help. So, I wrote a book called Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer.

Here are some important tips to consider when supporting a friend with cancer:

  • Ask permission before visiting. Make it clear that saying no is perfectly fine.
  • Before asking “personal” questions, find out if questions are welcome. Your friend or their caregiver will likely be happy to answer, but they may wish to keep some things private.
  • Most patients have a medical team, as well as close family members, participating in their decision-making process. Adding your two cents can be like the proverbial “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
  • Avoid bringing up behaviors (past or present) that may or may not have contributed to his or her disease. They are fully aware of these things and often feel guilty about them already.
  • If they express a desire to “give up” on treatment, avoid the natural reaction, “You’ve got to just keep fighting.” This can make the patient feel guilty and like you didn’t really listen to them as they expressed their feelings.
  • Instead, be supportive of your friend’s feelings. Allow them to be negative, withdrawn or silent, if they need to be. Resist the urge to change the subject. Silence and holding their hand can be a greater comfort.
  • Instead of giving advice, ask advice. This helps him/her maintain an active role in your friendship. Just because your friend has cancer, doesn’t mean their need to help and be heard has gone away.

Today, my husband is receiving the targeted treatment, Tagrisso, for the T790M mutation and feeling the best he has in over four years. Although he experiences chronic muscle and joint pain, due to years of treatments, Dan is living an active life. Our family is very thankful.

Heather Erickson is the author of Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone who has Cancer and The Memory Maker’s Journal: Putting Your Memories into Words.