Monday, October 6, 2008

When a friend has cancer ... at a loss for what to say or do? Here are some pointers

Friday I went to the Patient Support Group at the Cross Cancer .... we shared stories of some of the odd things people say and do when they find out you have cancer. An article from a November 1995 Chatelaine magazine written by Laurie Bildfell was presented. She offers ten pointers on what to say or do when a friend has cancer.

I'd like to share Laurie Bildfell's article.... hoping Chatelaine doesn't mind.

When a friend has cancer

At a loss for what to say or do? Here are some pointers

It's been two-and-a-half years since I was told at age 40 that I had cancer. It feels much longer. The experience has been an enriching, scary and sometimes painful roller-coaster ride in the dark. Sometimes, on the ride, I've been surprised at who was holding my hand, and who wasn't. Often, people withdraw, not because they can't cope or don't care, but because they don't know what to do and are afraid of doing the wrong thing. Based on my experience, here's a list of do's and don'ts:

1. Be there. Don't suddenly drop off the face of the Earth just because I have cancer. I'm easily pleased: a postcard, a two-dollar violet, a phone call. Don't procrastinate -- I need your friendship and support now.

2. Don't treat me differently. I am the same person. Some cells are running wild in my body, but I still like to laugh, go to movies, swim at the Y. Life goes on.

3. Please do ask me how I am. I may not always want to talk about my illness or my treatment, and I probably won't but if you don't even ask " How are you?" a central fact of my life suddenly becomes shuttered, forbidden and unacknowledged, a deep black hole that we tiptoe carefully around pretending it's not there.

4. Make a concrete gesture of support. I'm not good at asking for help, and the last thing I want to do is to blunder into accepting an offer that was never meant to go beyond words. If you see something you might be able to do, please suggest it. Cancer has abruptly turned my life upside down, and I often don't have the time or resources to figure out how I am going to manage my daily routine. If you're able to ferry my kids to Girl Guides along with your own, pick up a few groceries when you're headed my way, lend me a floppy hat or pretty scarf, or watch for the school bus when I have an appointment, please make the offer. It's hard to be asking all the time.

5. Listen to my family. My husband and kids are in this too. Sometimes kids have questions they may be afraid to ask at home. Answer them honestly, if you can't. If you think I need to know about what's worrying them and can fill me in without violating their confidence, I want to hear it. My husband is also carrying a load that's rarely acknowledged. If he needs to talk about his fears and pain, please listen.

6. Take my kids out. For my kids, the strain and uncertainty of having a sick parent is immense. After a while, home feels like a combination hospital ward/funeral parlor/loony bin. They need to have a bit of fun and remember what "normal" feels like. Please think about including them in your plans; maybe a trip to the apple orchard, cocoa and skating, or story time at the library.

7. Bring food. Regardless of their physical state, anyone diagnosed with cancer is emotionally and mentally shell shocked. For months, I had the attention span of a gnat. Even making a cup of tea was an organizational challenge. Without the casseroles and jars of spaghetti sauce friends had put in the freezer, there were days we would have been dining on peanut butter and crackers.

8. Be patient with my work habits. If you're a colleague or employer, please bear with me. Cancer patients sometimes fell as if we haven't got much time left, and we're spending it in waiting rooms. I know these endless appointments are inconvenient. I know I'm probably not working at peak capacity. But I'm doing the very best I can.

9. Listen to me. I get tired of being strong all the time. It's great to hear about your cousin in Montreal who had exactly the same cancer and is doing fine, but there are days when I really don't feel things are going well. I'd like to be able to talk about it. Please don't silence me with bouncy optimism. Every cancer patient knows we don't all make it. I need to be able to acknowledge that.

10. Do unto others. Perish the thought, but you may be there one day too. Think about how you would like to be treated. Then do it.

Laurie Bildfell, Chatelaine Magazine

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