How To Be A Good Friend To Someone With Cancer? – Frequently Asked Question
“How do I become a good friend to someone with cancer?” Ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, that is my most frequently asked question. I always do my best to share my input. The more I answer this question, the more it became clear that I’m not the right person to answer the question. I was a cancer patient and can only speak from my experience of being a patient. I knew the right person to answer this had to be someone who was that good friend to someone with cancer. The right person is my best friend, Steph.
Being A Good Friend To Someone With Cancer
In my opinion, I think she did an amazing job being a good friend to someone with cancer. She was there for me always and didn’t question our friendship. I don’t know how she knew how to handle it, but she did. So I asked her if she can be that person for me to answer how she became that good friend to someone with cancer.
When Steph was in town, we took advantage of doing this fun photoshoot together. I wanted you all to see our personalities through these images and the bond we have. We did a similar shoot a couple years ago. During that time, I just ended chemo and wore my wig the entire time. We always love doing shoots together!
Her Perspective Of My Cancer Diagnosis
Before Steph shares her tips on how to be a good friend to someone with cancer, she wrote and expressed how she felt when she heard I had cancer and what that experience was like for her. Maybe some of you can relate. She shared this with me a couple of years ago. I thought it was beautifully written. It really got me to see what it was like to be in her shoes.
However, if you are here just for the tips, feel free to scroll down all the way to the section noted as “8 Ways To Be A Good Friend To Someone With Cancer”
How To Be A Good Friend To Someone With Cancer
By Stephanie Brogadir
Soulmates are people who come into our lives and never leave. When they enter, there’s a palpable before and after that can be pinpointed precisely by their presence alone. Soulmates are the people that make us better versions of ourselves and realize our value and never stop reminding us of it. They challenge us to be more than we thought possible. They make us laugh the loudest. Perhaps most profoundly, they understand our silence and uncertainty without judgment. As bewildering and complex as life is bound to get at times, they are the reason we are most confident in moments of doubt.
I am extraordinarily fortunate to be able to count on both hands the people that have impacted my life in such a way. Among them is my best friend, Rach. She is the person that I look for in everyone else. Only to be reminded again of how rare she is and how lucky I am to know her. It is no surprise that she is still the most tactful, poised, and compassionate woman I have ever known. Even while facing the most extreme of life’s misfortunes.
Rach has been a nonstop force of nature in my life for thirteen years. We both attended the University of Iowa together and went on to spend every tailgate, “study session,” and girls’ night out together. When classes were no longer in session, I spent every weekend at her house and was dubbed her parents’ third daughter. Her extended family still refers to me as their cousin.
We have gone on five trips together. Post-graduation, Rach and I moved into our first big-girl apartment in downtown Chicago where we lived together for more than a year. She taught me to love and embrace running, which has since become one of my biggest passions in life. She also taught me to properly julienne a pepper, chop garlic like an Iron Chef, and have overall confidence in my cooking abilities. Most importantly, she taught me how to love a friend unconditionally. In exchange for all that she has given me, including full access to her enviable closet, I introduced her to the love of her life and now husband, Tre.
Rach and I have been there for each other through emotional breakups, the transition into adulthood, family woes, career changes, and later celebrations of each of our engagements (within one month of each other). As well as the entire wedding planning process as we simultaneously joked about from the highly underrated film, Bride Wars. We even picked the same date for our weddings, the 26th. Hers is in June and mine is in September. We used to spend most of our time dreaming about buying houses in the same neighborhood and having our future children grow up together.
She Was Diagnosed
On diagnosis day, I was at my office when I received the news. I knew that Rach had a biopsy taken two days prior. She had brought up the appointment casually during a dinner we had gotten together a week earlier. Her doctor had mentioned that the lump on her right breast had changed since her last appointment. Her doctor ordered her to have a biopsy.
Never Crossed Our Minds
It never occurred to either of us that she could actually have cancer. She was a couple months shy of 28 years old. She was health-conscious, physically fit, and was unaware of any family history of the disease. Her exact words to me were, “I wish I had good news, but all three of my lumps have cancer”. Tears streamed uncontrollably down my face. I tried to pull myself together, but it was impossible. I told my boss that I had an emergency and had to leave the office immediately.
Within twenty minutes, I was at Rach’s side. Her sister and parents arrived shortly thereafter. I held her mother in my arms as she cried and asked me why this couldn’t have happened to her instead of her young daughter. We all sat around nervously as Rach continued to field calls throughout the day from her nurse coordinator, taking a stronger sucker punch to the gut with each subsequent phone call detailing more bad news. Two days later, Zach and I brought Rach and Tre dinner. I hugged her while Tre did the talking and gave the play-by-play of the discussion with the oncologist since Rach couldn’t get the words out. Her sweet husband recalled fainting in the oncologist’s office while listening with concern to the atrociously vivid details of the cancer that his new wife is now facing.
Being There For Her
That Sunday, my husband Zach and I went to Holy Hill Basilica in Milwaukee with her family. We wanted to say a special prayer for Rach and have her blessed by a priest. I held her mom’s hand as we sat through the service. The priest gave a sermon about a young man in his congregation that has to wheel his new wife around in a wheelchair after she was recently diagnosed with MS and spoke about how when we recite our vows we don’t truly know what it means when we say “in sickness and in health,” until we do. Never has there been a more poignant moment. On that day and every day since, I asked God to give Rach the strength to fight this cancer and prevent it from spreading while giving Tre the fortitude to help her survive it.
During Her Treatments
In the months following her diagnosis, Rach successfully completed six chemotherapy sessions. She was given four chemo drugs, a regimen known as TCHP, administered through her port in eight hour sessions. I spent much of my free time frantically digging up research on her treatment plan and delving into the side effects of those drugs. I suppose I was mentally preparing myself. Thankfully, I was able to arrange with the company that I worked for to take longer lunches during many of her chemo sessions. I showed up to the hospital with my “Team Rach” t-shirt underneath my business attire and distracted her as best as I could with Bachelor contestant gossip, and the most noteworthy selections from the highly anticipated Nordstrom sale as I tried not to watch the slow drips from the fluid bag out of the corner of my eye.
Seeing Her During Treatments
Rach’s first session was so intense that she started losing her hair almost immediately. She had told me in advance about the night that she had planned to shave her head. She wanted to get it over with as she didn’t see the point in waiting for her hair to fall out in patches. That same evening, I knocked on her door with a wool hat to keep her head warm. She answered the door timidly, unsure if she wanted me to see her in this way quite yet. Truth be told, neither of us were prepared for what was to come.
Chemo left Rach feeling weak and nauseated following each session. Zach and I would arrive at her and Tre’s condo with takeout and she wouldn’t be able to finish her plate, a disturbing site to witness because as anyone that knows her well can testify, the girl used to be able to throw down a large pizza with little effort and still fit into skinny jeans. The drugs made water taste like metal. Tre would lovingly have to remind her to keep hydrated. Her mother-in-law tried to make drinking water fun by sending her home from the hospital with a care package full of brightly colored fancy straws. Like a cruel joke, she would just start to regain her energy and appetite the day before she would have to begin the next vicious cycle.
Subsequently, Rach underwent a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. The surgery lasted approximately nine hours and went very well, per her surgeons. They removed four sentinel lymph nodes in the process. She was taken to recovery for a few hours before moving into the ICU, where they kept her for a total of three days.
When Zach and I visited with the carefully selected flowers I had chosen to cheer her up, I had expected to see the same perpetually optimistic smile that had always graced her face despite the horrific circumstances. This time was different. I could see the pain had stung her eyes before my body had even fully entered the room. She couldn’t sit, stand, or use the bathroom without assistance. We took turns shuffling in and out of the room with her extended family. She fell in and out of sleep and didn’t feel much like chatting. We pretended to watch the Olympics, but all we could focus on was her suffering. I kissed her on the forehead, too scared to even graze her with the slightest touch of my hand out of fear that it would cause her more pain.
Post-surgery, they released Rach with four drains, two on each side. It was a month before they would all be removed. The pathology report indicated that two of the four tumors had completely disappeared. The remaining two had significantly shrunk in size. Her doctors boasted that she had a very strong partial response to treatments, and her cancer went from stage 2A to stage 1A. In addition, her oncologist determined that she no longer needed another round of chemo. Her treatment plan would instead focus on targeted therapy and hormone therapy.
Evolution Of Our Friendship
In the years following Rach’s surgery and chemo sessions, our friendship has evolved. Her energy levels are much lower. Whereas at one point in time, she was upset with herself for not making a Boston qualifying time of under four hours to complete the Chicago marathon.
She now would be elated if she could just approach the finish line of a 5k without any timed goal in mind. You’ve heard the expression “shop ‘til you drop,” no doubt. Well, pre-cancer that used to describe a leisurely day of us. We would catch up over a meal at a restaurant, pop into stores that lured us in with a cute window display (namely, Anthropologie and Paper Source), watched HGTV home renovation programming (amid countless hours of seemingly insignificant chatter), followed up later that night by more shopping (this time online) as we texted each other photos of clothing followed promptly by numerous question marks, anxiously awaiting the other’s approval before clicking the shopping cart icon. A post-diagnosis get together usually involved a Very Cavallari bingeathon on Rach’s couch.
Being There for Each Other
I have since moved across the country. Now it is more likely that we will catch up a couple times a month in the morning over a cup of coffee over the phone. I try to concentrate on her health updates through my six month old daughter’s babbling. We talk about what is happening in our lives, and she promises me that I’ll be among the first to know about a clean scan. While distance now physically separates us, I still think about her every single day. I do my best to provide support from afar.
8 Ways To Be a Good Friend to Someone with Cancer
It is important that you first try to cope with your own emotions before offering support to a loved one facing cancer. This way, you can keep the focus on your friend. Remember that they are scared. It is not their job to comfort you. Rather, it is your job to listen to them and take the initiative to learn about their diagnosis. Keep in mind they are likely having to repeat themselves over and over again while explaining the circumstances of their diagnosis to family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers and teachers.
This is both physically and emotionally draining. Each emotional response will take a toll on them as they are already in a shocked and vulnerable state. Take notes so that you can do some research on your own time without having to ask too many questions upfront which may be considered initially insensitive. Once you have a handle on the details of the diagnosis, repeat the information back for accuracy.
Remember, Everyone’s Diagnosis is Different
Keep in mind that even with similar diagnoses, treatment plans can vary widely. This is based on the team of doctors that will be treating the cancer. For this reason, it is important that you not offer a personal anecdote. For example, “Breast cancer is very treatable these days. My grandmother had breast cancer and she lived to be 83!” There are different grades, stages and types of cancer even when it affects the same organ. The age at which the cancer is discovered can even affect the treatment plan. All of these factors combined determine the prognosis. While it is human nature to want to make a connection to a positive outcome and relate to your friend or loved one’s experience as best you can, it is not helpful to them.
Give Thoughtful Gifts
If gift giving is your love language, consider showing your friend or family that you are thinking of them with a thoughtful gesture. The weekend after Rach’s diagnosis I wanted to respectfully give her and Tre the space that I thought they might be needing to process the news as husband and wife while still showing her that I was thinking of her. I dropped off a basket of items that I thought may make her smile: a beautiful magazine with pretty interiors to distract her in the waiting room, a leather bound planner to jot down doctor notes and important dates, and a pastel pen with a witty phrase. I attached a handmade tag to each item with a note that said “Remember when…” and wrote down my most cherished memories of our friendship.
I never told her in advance that I was bringing something over because I didn’t want her to stress about when to be home or having to coordinate a good time that wasn’t emotionally wrought to drop it off. I simply left it at her door. And I sent her a text letting her know there was something outside for her to check when she had a chance. She was so touched by the gesture. I felt satisfied knowing that she knew that I was there for her when she decided she was ready to talk.
Examples of Thoughtful Gifts
Examples of other thoughtful gifts (but are not limited to): cozy seat belt covers that protect the port, a warm hat for when her hair falls out, a snuggly blanket for chemo sessions, and pretty straws to help ease the pain from mouth sores. While we often think of gifting food for comfort during trying times, I urge you to refrain from this after chemo has begun. Chemo affects tastes and smells that would have ordinarily been appreciated can suddenly taste terrible and induce nausea. Also, their diets may have changed.
Do Your Research
Take the time to show your friend that you care enough to learn about their treatment plan. After I was told of Rach’s initial diagnosis, I visited chat threads of other women that had similar diagnoses. I wanted to see how these women were handling their cancer and how they were feeling during and after chemo.
Though I knew that I would never be able to relate to Rach, I wanted to understand what she was enduring as best as I could. I try not ask questions that could potentially offend her. Once I had a handle on her treatment plan and she confirmed that I understood, I offered to relay the information to other peripheral friends so that she would not need to repeat herself constantly, which she gladly accepted.
It you truly want to be of service to a loved one during this difficult time, it is important that you not only offer kind words, but that you physically show up for them. Your relationship with your friend is undoubtedly going to go through some major changes as their cancer treatment and life afterwards unfolds. Do not place the burden on your loved one to ask you for what they need. No one likes having to ask for help or appear weak. If your friend is religious, ask if you can accompany them to a service of their faith. Try to attend as many chemo sessions as possible. Consider raising funds for a charitable organization that is significant to them.
For two years I participated in the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade and walked thirty-nine miles in Rach’s honor. I raised funds for support services for breast cancer patients attending local hospitals in Chicago. I also dedicated my 30th birthday to fund raising for the Young Survival Coalition in lieu of gifts. This is because she had told me how much their retreats had helped her and her husband.
Offer to Help
There are a variety of ways to show your love and support with a thoughtful gesture. Consider coming over to clean and tackle a pile of laundry. Cleaning is the last thing on their mind when your loved one’s energy is zapped. Someone taking the time to help tidy and keep the household functioning can be enormously helpful. If your friend has small kids, plan a special day out and about with them at a park. This will allow your friend to get some much needed rest while alleviating some of the guilt that may stem from not being able to fully entertain the kiddos.
Caregivers are often overlooked. They are not technically the ones whose health is suffering. However, they carry a significant amount of the emotional weight that accompanies caring for a loved one with cancer. Spouses and parents of the cancer patient need support too. Do your best to show caregivers a little extra love. Let them know that you see how hard they are working through their loved one’s suffering.
Post-surgery, I made a point to tell Rach’s in-laws how proud they should be of their son for being such a strong man and taking such good care of his wife. I meant what I said wholeheartedly. Tre’s mom was moved to tears. Sometimes just a simple heartfelt recognition of someone’s struggle can be enormously cathartic. It is enough to make them feel a little better about the circumstances they are dealing with.
Continue to Offer Support After The Initial Diagnosis
When your friend announces that they have cancer, there will be an influx of attention from extended family and friends. As time goes on, many of those people will return that attention back to their own lives. They will be heard from and seen less frequently. However, your friend will be dealing with the lingering side effects of surgery and chemo drugs for many years to come. It is important that you remain steadfast in your support even if your friend may appear healthier on the outside.
Do not expect your friend to meet you on the same field with the energy they once had pre-diagnosis. Whereas your friendship may have previously revolved around: coffee dates, shopping, gathering for a nice meal or glass of wine. Expect that it may now entail going to your loved one’s home to binge-watch a show together on the couch. Embrace this new normal routine of yours and make the most of it. Facemask, anyone?
Continue To Be A Good Friend to Someone With Cancer
Many people in your friend’s life may avoid talking about their cancer for fear of upsetting them. While others may focus solely on this aspect of their life. Allow your loved one to signal if they wish to speak about it or not. At times they may wish to talk about “normal” things that they used to focus on pre-cancer. At other times they may wish to vent about their health and experiences with cancer.
Try to remain open to being the outlet in which they need in the moment. Your friend is trying to navigate a dual identity as the person they once were and the patient that they have become. They will be grateful that you are there in the difficult moments. They will relish that you can still find a way to make them laugh and be lighthearted. Whatever you do, don’t alienate them for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. You may feel foolish venting about things like a promotion that was overlooked when your loved one is fighting for their life. But your life is important too and your friend still wants to hear about it and be a part of it.
My Final Thoughts
Now it’s Rach talking (or writing). What do you guys think of this post? It’s different than my usual blog posts. But I really think she nailed it with answering how to be a good friend to someone with cancer. I am forever grateful and blessed for her friendship. Our bond is one of those that we don’t need to remind each other that we are friends. We just are. There’s no pressure. When we can see or talk to each other, it’s like no time or distance has changed our friendship. Forever grateful to have Steph as my best friend.