Help! How Do I Help a Friend with Cancer?
A close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer a few weeks ago. She’s had surgery and will be undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. The doctors say her prognosis looks good, but she has had to drop out of her grad school program for the semester.
We were all absolutely devastated when we heard the news, and it’s been the most difficult thing I could imagine for her and her family. She has been inconsolably depressed, crying all the time, and so angry that her life as she knows it is over. It is so not fair that this happened to such a wonderful person—and all I want to do is make her feel even a tiny bit better.
Our friends have tried everything we can think of—spending days at the hospital, crying with her, talking, bringing games, watching movies, and more. But nothing has helped—even the good news from the doctors that we got last week. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain she’s going through, so I am at a loss as to what else I could say or do that might help even a tiny bit.
How can I help her?
I am moved by your question. It sounds as if you are a caring, concerned friend who’s doing everything possible to alleviate your friend’s suffering.
Unfortunately, there is nothing you can say or do to magically make things better or to wish her disease away. Your friend is mourning a very grave loss. Calling cancer a loss may surprise you, but a young woman being treated for breast cancer, even breast cancer she’s probably going to survive, is dealing with significant life losses, including loss of health, loss of innocence, loss of safety, (perceived) loss of sexuality, and (at least temporarily) loss of cherished dreams and ambitions.
Your friend is on a journey and needs time to process this profound life experience. All you can offer is your companionship and deepest compassion. The Buddhist definition of compassion is the nearest I’ve come to truly understanding how to handle situations like yours:
“Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”
Being close to her suffering means being patient with her feelings, not trying to change them. Continue to visit and when you do, encourage her to express her emotions, and always validate their legitimacy, even if they’re scary or make you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. Don’t pretend to understand her pain; it is hers and hers alone. And when she’s opening up to you, don’t try to distract her unless she’s begging for news from the outside world or a change in topic.
Also refrain from optimistic assurances—they may come across as empty or invalidating and may further anger or depress her. Don’t, for example, try to reassure her that she can go back to school next year, or even that all will eventually go back to “normal.” Her process might take her somewhere else entirely, and her “normal” may be altered permanently, too.
All that being said, there are some ways you can help her move forward:
- Bring her a beautiful journal in which to record her experiences and feelings. She can keep this private, of course, but the writing process itself is wonderfully beneficial. Or direct her to a website like www.caringbridge.org, where cancer patients can write an ongoing journal, share their experiences with a community of concerned friends, and receive support.
- Encourage her to participate in a support group with other young women facing breast cancer or other health crises. Individual therapy with a social worker or psychologist might also help. Check out the resources in her area or community, or ask her hospital for helpful and therapeutic resources.
- Put together a care package of meditation tapes, green or white teas, a heating pad, aromatherapy candles, books (the young and amazing Kris Carr has a few), tissues, stationery—anything that may be comforting and relaxing to her.
- Bring her a book about the breast cancer experience, either a memoir or an instructional book on how to get through it. Hearing from someone else who has been through what she’s dealing with might be incredibly comforting, and help her feel that she’s not so alone.
Finally, keep doing what you’re doing. Be present and humble. Observe and reflect. Allow silence, and don’t judge. No matter how she’s dealing with this, accept her, listen to her, and love her.
Let me end with a life survival tip, which I offer in the most sincere and open way. After I lost my son, I spent years raging at the whole universe, to no avail—except to learn that the universe is 100% indifferent to what seems fair. Knowing this tidbit helped me later, when I received my own breast cancer diagnosis.
I offer this tip to help you prepare yourself for the vicissitudes of life, and to encourage you to be grateful for each moment and every day. To help you help your friend as she begins this journey. And to state a bottom-line truth that is nonnegotiable and endlessly unforgiving:
Survival Tip #1: Life is not fair.
Your friend is learning this truth, and I encourage you to learn it, too. And I wish you both good luck and good health.
Have a question for Fran? Email firstname.lastname@example.org