breast cancer silver lining

13 Tips on talking to a friend with cancer

This October, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m reposting my tips for what to say to a friend with cancer. It’s hard to keep up with the plethora of online resources, so keep that in mind. Share with anyone who might benefit.

friend with cancer women with bust

Several friends asked me over the years how to talk to a friend with cancer. I’m no expert, but I did have breast cancer so that makes me a de facto resource. My suggestions below apply to any cancer, because cancer likes to become other cancer. Fucking cancer. Additionally, I’m trying out new phrases to describe people with cancer. So, let me know your favorite.

1. Don’t make assumptions

Ask and listen. Say, “Do you want a response or is listening better?” Some people are private. On the other hand, some tell their waitperson about their diagnosis and mention it in passing to sales clerks. Don’t assume it’s best to ignore or not bring up. If your friend is angry, they might want to scream about it. If they’re contemplative, they may need a simple distraction. Ask your friend periodically if they want to talk about cancer or not. Let them know it’s okay either way. If you know they are comforted by prayer or line dancing, indulge them.

2. Resist saying “Let me know if you need anything.”

The cancery person doesn’t know what they need. Even if they did, they are usually loathe to ask for it. We know you don’t know what else to say. Although we’re not upset with you, figure it out yourself. Instead of asking what you can do, tell them what you’d like to do. Then, get their approval. Pick a task you think would be helpful, and just do it.

Alternatively, tell your cancer-riddled friend you’d like to pick up their children on Tuesday for a few hours. Tell them you’d like to clean their kitchen (because who wouldn’t?). They know you’re insincere and they are grateful for your bold-faced lie. Moreover, ask what day works best. Ask your friend if you can help file their taxes or pay bills online. In other words, the everyday shit no one wants to do, especially if your head is in the toilet. Don’t put additional pressure on your friend to figure out how you can help. You figure it out, get agreement, then do it.

3. Be positive, but don’t put pressure on your friend with cancer to be

You be positive enough for both of you. It’s okay to cry and be sentimental. This is a moment of reckoning. However, no amount of positive thinking, or courage will change your friend’s outcome with cancer. Implying they can shrink their tumor with positive thinking puts undue emotional pressure on your friend. They probably aren’t in the mood to turn that frown upside down. While I whole-heartedly believe in the power of positive thinking, don’t set up that expectation for your friend with cancer. Text or reach out to let them know you’re there but don’t have expectations regarding if they respond.

4. practice Constructive concern

They kind of need all the help they can get, but they also get overwhelmed. Thus, your good intentions can backfire if you aren’t paying close attention. Ask the formerly non-cancered person how often you can check in. Communicate directly. Follow the cancer person’s lead and recognize the answer may change daily, or hourly. Don’t ask if they’re okay. Of course they aren’t okay. That’s a hollow question. Ask how they feel and reassure them how much cancer sucks. Pause before you tell them you know how they feel. Then don’t open your mouth.

Diary your cancer friend’s medical appointments and check in before or after. Know when their chemotherapy &/or radiation treatments are scheduled. Ask about test results. At a minimum, know if they anticipate test results in case that informs your friend’s mood. Inquire what day you can take them to an appointment. Research the terms they use and be able to talk about them. If they’re keen on knowing as much as possible, gather information they didn’t know (that won’t terrify them.) If WebMD advises they have two months to live and a case of The Clap, keep that information to yourself.

duck pin bowling balls

5. Don’t talk about other people’s cancer, even your own

Even if you had cancer, this is your friend’s cancer moment. Right now the focus is on them. They don’t want to hear about Uncle Riley’s near brush with death. It doesn’t matter he lost both his balls to cancer and went on to win a rowing scholarship. We don’t give a shit about Uncle Riley. Tread lightly about offering up “survivor” stories. Presently, we’re scared we’re going to orphan our children.

6. meals on wheels

They may not feel like eating, but their family probably will. Set up a meal train for the cancer-tastic person so that friends can coordinate meals to their house. A friend did this for me and it was fantastic: Coordinating is important so you don’t overwhelm your friend with cancer with an overflowing array of casseroles that could feed a small village. Don’t send food in containers they have to return. Give them the gift of letting go of thinking about whether your pie pan made it back to you.

7. Find out what language they prefer

Don’t inadvertently make them wince when you speak. They have enough to obsess about. Many people may not care, but I personally don’t consider myself a cancer “survivor”, nor define myself by that term. It’s one of those words that makes my ass twitch. Likewise, the word “hero” and “soulmate” make me throw up in my mouth a little. “Cancer survivor” puts cancer first and gives cancer too much space and power. Others who previously had cancer may like the term. However, let them use it, not you.

friend with cancer women with bust
Of course they’re fake! The real ones tried to kill me!

I also cringe at phrases like “waging battle” or any war terminology. You wouldn’t congratulate me for winning a battle with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Reason being, IBS, like cancer, is a disease, not a gladiator. Waging battle implies there is a winner and a loser. Folks who die from cancer aren’t losers in a battle. No amount of positive thinking or courage will change your friend’s outcome with cancer. They probably aren’t in the mood to turn that frown upside down.

8. The gift that keeps on giving

I wish I was one of those selfless people who told folks not to bring gifts to my children’s birthday party. Unfortunately, I like gifts. Give me lots of fucking gifts. Shower me with expensive ones you can’t afford. For better or worse, gifts are a method of showing love and support in our culture. Expensive gifts aren’t required, but welcome! My husband gave me a Welcome To Cancer iPad. It is currently at the iPad repair hospital because one of my children murdered it. Fuckers. Don’t buy an iPad unless you’re sleeping with the tumored person.

Bonus tip: include a “get out of thank you” card with the gift.

One friend sent things she liked periodically: her favorite lotion, earrings, a book. Another friend sent pajamas and slippers. I’m still living in the robes another friend sent. Yet another friend scheduled a night to go out for cocktails/dinner AND set up and paid for my sitter. I totally wanted to sleep with her after that gesture. My mother sent me a sentimental gift: a stuffed animal rabbit. No! Not like a taxidermied hare to hang on my wall. A sweet, plushy thing for my bed. Also, couple friends sent their house cleaner to my house. Many friends just came over to be with me. My humblest apologies if my friends read this and I didn’t mention the thing you did for me. That time was a bit of a blur. You complete me and I am forever beholden.

9. Do their homework & the heavy lifting

Investigate what services for people fortunate enough to get cancer are available so they don’t have to. The number of support services is dizzying and can become the tyranny of choices. I signed up with Cleaning For A Reason and got four hours of free house cleaning. I would have been totally miffed if I’d missed out on someone else cleaning my toilet. My YMCA has a Livestrong program for the tumor-tastic folks. Find the best, or most helpful in-person or online Support Groups. Ask if you can set up a website, zoom calls &/or keep relatives informed so they don’t have to. Deal with the technical difficulties. Locate sources of inspiration, be it blogs, Cats of Instagram or whatever.

If you have a particular expertise &/or relevant network, bring those resources to bear. If you’re an attorney, ask about preparing a Health Care Directive. As a nurse, you might be able to perform certain home health care. You get the idea. Caveat: if you’re a salesperson, don’t try to sell them insurance or a used car.

11. The family of the friend with cancer

Do things for the cancer-ific person’s immediate family, especially their kids. Don’t offer to only take the easy child. Suck it up and take the teenager who won’t speak to adults. Nothing touches my heart so much as someone doing something nice for my children. Talk to their kids about how they feel, as appropriate. Take their spouse to see a movie, or send porn. Ask them how they feel and give them an opportunity to vocalize their fears.

Avoid words like “death”, “projectile vomiting”, “uncontrollable flatulence” and “terminal”. Find age-appropriate resources/books/videos to give kids explaining cancer, like one of my friends did. Better yet, read the books to them. My favorites for younger children: The Kissing Hand by AudreyPenn. Our Mom Has Cancer by Abigail & Adrienne Ackermann. Is a Worry Worrying You? by Ferida Wolff & Harriet May Savitz.

12. Hook them up with Cancer communities

See if they have other cancer-struck persons they can talk to. Former cancer patients came out of the woodwork after I “came out” with cancer. I amassed a list of a dozen women, some of whom I didn’t know but were friends of friends. We checked on each other during treatments and asked questions. This was a nice way to get support with women who were just one step removed from me. Cancer is a very bonding experience and the former cancer patients embrace the newly-diagnosed like nobody’s business. Blogs, articles, USA Lifetime movies, Blockbuster VHS tapes, vampire cancer diaries. Whatever’s vogue these days.

13. Put the Can! in Cancer

You know your cancer person best. For instance, I deal with life through humor. I really appreciated the people who just looked me in the eye and said, “So, how’s the cancer?” or “Another day with cancer is another day you aren’t dead.” Sweet sentiments bring out the worst in me. For people like me, avoid uttering unctuous platitudes like, “This is God’s plan” or “Everything happens for a reason”. That is, unless you are trying to give your formerly-not-familiar-with-cancer friend a face to punch to work out their pent-up angst. I suspect most would appreciate the sentiment response. If so, lavish them with it.

If you have any tips for dealing with a friend with cancer, please share in the comments! 

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