How to Talk to and Support a Friend Facing Cancer

Your best friend mentions a trip to the doctor. He or she says, “I noticed something… thought I should get it checked out.”

You wish your friend the best, perhaps say a little prayer. But even if this word leaves you with a nagging concern, nothing prepares you to hear someone you deeply love or care about has been diagnosed with some type of malignancy.

When you hear the news, either from your friend or second hand, such as through a friend’s husband or family member, you may hear someone entreat you, “But don’t mention the cancer. It’s just too depressing. Just try to be upbeat.”

Exactly how you should respond really depends on the circumstances. All too often, in a rush not to overwhelm the person who has been diagnosed, everyone tries to avoid the very subject of concern. Mental health experts tell us this response not only makes it tougher for the patient to share his or her feelings with others, but can contribute to a sense of denial in those not yet ready to cope with the news.

“Those first few weeks after a person is first recognized to have cancer are often chaotic. The person goes from working, walking human to patient status and gets hit with a myriad of decisions at a time when they feel least capable of making the right choices,” says Mary Jensen, a retired New York nurse who spent nearly three decades working with cancer patients.

“Yet it’s often just then that people try to help by trying to make everything seem normal when it’s anything but. Often, through loving misintention or fear of the topic themselves, they end up isolating their loved one who gets the message it’s not OK to speak.”

“No,” Jensen continues, “not every cancer patient is ready to discuss everything about their diagnosis. But friends and family members need to be open to allow their ailing loved one to talk freely about their illness, their options, and their fears. Without this, the patient can become bereft emotionally. Chance of depression increases. Yet we know that positive energy can contribute greatly to wellness and recovery, while depression can hamper healing.”

The reticence to discuss cancer is hardly new. It was not so very long ago, people only uttered the word “cancer” in hushed tones or in awkward euphemisms, even among long married husbands and wives. As recently as the 1960s, some women in the workforce, especially those who developed cancer of the breast or reproductive organs, were encouraged to “stay at home.”

In those dark times in our understanding of all the forms and cell types it can take, cancer was treated as a shameful secret, a punishment of our bodies as if for some transgression, an automatic death sentence, or all three. While today’s education and outreach has brought light to the darkness, shadows and whispers of this old thinking remain.

Just take to RuthAnn McLaughlin, just resettled in Texas after a difficult evacuation from suburban New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. A 22-year breast cancer survivor herself, she has also walked the path with several very close friends and family members diagnosed.

“I was diagnosed back when President Ford’s wife had just undergone treatment, so at least there was a lot of talk in the news. But I couldn’t get a single soul in my family or church or at work to sit through me saying more than a few words about what I was going through. I never felt so scared and alone,” she admits.

But McLaughlin turned her hardship into a life line for others. Despite how many roadblocks she faced when she raised the topic of cancer, she kept talking. Eventually, other women were drawn to her because they too felt in solitary confinement with their diagnosis, and wanted her support and honest discussion.

Over time, McLaughlin built the skills – just from trial and error – that helped her guide friends and family through the diagnosis as well. She has also worked with a hospice group and cancer outreach programs.

Jensen, McLaughlin, and others interviewed for this article offered very similar tips for standing side by side with a friend or loved one who has just been diagnosed with a malignancy. These include:

1) Don’t raise the topic constantly, but regularly let the person know you are available to them if they want to discuss the cancer.

2) Offer to accompany them to appointments with doctors and other caregivers. Offer to be the patient’s advocate. Write down questions the person wants to ask ahead of time, and keep track of the answers (take notes); remind a medical professional when a question has been asked but has gotten no reply. Then provide these notes to your friend or loved one to review.

3) If your friend or loved one shows an interest, help him or her seek out local resources. Many hospitals and communities, for example, offer support groups that meet at weekly or monthly. Some also hold meetings to help the families and friends of cancer patients, too.

4) Along with investigating resources, quietly check around to see if there are financial programs to help less financially-capable friends pay for medication, obtain needed equipment, or arrange for transportation to and from treatment and doctors’ visits.

5) Schedule little “mental health” afternoons or weekends for your ailing friend where the focus is on living and feeling good. Plan an hour or two at a spa, a creative lunch, seeing a show, or an afternoon of playing that person’s favorite games or movies.

6) Consider getting involved in cancer research walks and support programs and let your friend know your work is at least in part to support them and celebrate their life and their desired recovery.

7) Watch your friend for signs of depression. While depression is not a rare reaction to life-changing news, try to get a sense for when this emotional state may be affecting the person’s ability to participate in their own recovery. If you think it is getting serious, suggest to your friend that it may be time to consult the doctor.

8) Walk a fine line between treating your friend as a feeble and ill person and one who is perfectly fine.

“My very best advice,” adds McLaughlin, “is always remember your friend is your friend regardless of what happens. When you have a strong enough bond between you, the two of you can weather anything from scary talks to difficult treatment side effects.”

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