A diagnosis of cancer can create awkward tensions between friends. If your friend has cancer, you may already find that your conversations with him or her are strained. You may even find yourself not calling or visiting your friend—not because you don’t care, but because you don’t know how to be helpful.
Like hundreds of others, you may feel caught in a dilemma. You may want to reach out, but you are afraid of making matters worse by doing the wrong thing—such as mentioning the word “cancer.”
Sadly enough, friends sometimes drift apart during a cancer crisis. The following do’s and don’ts are an effort to prevent this. They are a summary of suggestions often made by cancer patients and their families on how their friends could be more helpful.
What You Can Do
- First of all, say or do something.
The risk of hurting your friend by saying the wrong thing is much less of a danger than the risk of hurting your friend by saying nothing. Silence can easily convey the impression that you don’t care.
- Make a symbolic effort to help.
If you find it hard to get started, “say it with flowers.” Or say it with vegetables from your vegetable garden, or a crock of soup, or freshly baked bread from your kitchen. Or just a card that says “Thinking of You.” If you cannot get beyond this symbolic form of help, then repeat it on a regular basis throughout your friend’s illness. You’d be amazed how much this helps.
- Confront the fact of cancer directly.
Regarding conversation, it is usually best to confront the fact of cancer directly, saying for example, “I’m terribly sorry to learn about your cancer.” This takes the burden of opening the subject off the patient and gives him or her the choice of either talking about the cancer or not.
- Follow your friend’s lead after you have mentioned the cancer.
If he or she changes the subject, this does not mean you have said the wrong thing. On the contrary, you may find that your friend returns to the subject on your next visit, confident that you are one friend who is willing to share difficult feelings.
- If your friend chooses to talk about the cancer, be a good listener.
Share your feelings honestly. Don’t be afraid to cry. Tears from a friend are often comforting to someone in distress.
What to Avoid
- Don’t talk about all the people you’ve known who have had cancer and have died from it!
This is a puzzling but frequent mistake made by friends, probably due to nervousness.
- Don’t try to make everything better by offering false cheer or false hope.
Your friend doesn’t expect you to fix the cancer, or even to make him or her cheerful. It is mostly your presence and willingness to enter his or her world that is appreciated.
- Don’t offer advice on how your friend should bear up under adversity.
Preaching almost never helps and can alienate your friend.
- Don’t make generalized offers to help, such as “Call me if there’s anything I can do.”
This places a burden on the patient or family who may be unsure about what would help. Make a specific offer such as “Can I mow your grass?” “Can I pick up the kids after school?” “Can I bring dinner over every Wednesday?” “Can I stay with you for a few hours, so your husband (wife) can get away?”
- Don’t stop offering your help even if you’ve been told that no help is needed.
Many people find it hard to accept help from others unless they are pushed a little. Wait a few days and make another offer.
Cancer patients and their families want to see tangible signs of concern from their friends. They need to be certain that, despite the rapid changes taking place in their life, your friendship is one thing that will remain constant.