Caring for a friend with cancer

How can you be there for a friend who has cancer? A survivor shares some useful ways friends can help. 

If a friend has been diagnosed with cancer, knowing ‘what next’ isn’t easy. It can be challenging trying to understand and come to terms with the difficult journey your friend is facing as well as providing appropriate help and support. Should you call, visit or give them space?

Here are some ways to show how much you care without overstepping the mark.

Connect with them

When you hear about your friend’s diagnosis, many people want to rush over to be with their friend or call them. While some would appreciate that, others may want to ‘drop off the grid’ to internalise and process the news.

Ask them

Take the lead from your friend or someone who knows them better. Ask how much contact they’re comfortable with and if there are more appropriate times of the day to make contact. 

Send a card

In the meantime, you can send messages of support through cards, letters, emails and text messages. Tell your friend not to feel any pressure to reply to your messages to give them the time and space they may need. 

Follow up

Messages of support often pour in when news of your friend’s diagnosis first breaks, and often reduce as time passes. Even if you don’t hear back, your ongoing support may give your friend the lift they need at that time.

Some people feel awkward and don’t know what to say to their friends when they are sick. Rather than staying silent, it can be helpful to explain to your friend that you care a lot but you aren’t sure of the right thing to say. 

Coordinated communication 

Exactly how much contact a person is comfortable with is a very personal thing. Some might want to be surrounded by friends and family, others may feel overwhelmed and prefer solitude.   

Be a spokesperson

It might be hard for your friend to keep everyone updated about their progress. Sometimes they may not have the physical or emotional strength to explain what they are going through. Some people may really appreciate if you offer to be a ‘spokesperson’ to  help keep their network up to date to take some of this pressure off them. This could include taking or making calls or sending texts or emails.  

Group sessions

Some people choose to set aside a morning or afternoon periodically for visitors to drop by with a plate when they feel they can handle a face-to-face catch-up. You could offer to help set these up for your friend.  Or they may like you to organise a Skype session if they’re not up to hosting visitors, or have loved ones who can’t drop by easily. Alternatively you could record a group video to help brighten your friend’s day.

Take the pressure off

Cook for the family

There’s something comforting about a home cooked meal, especially when someone else does the shopping, cooking and dishes. Delivering meals to your friend and their family is something they will likely appreciate.
Try putting together a meals roster, starting with a group of common friends, and then cast your net wider. An app like Thrivor can help organise this. Remember to check if there are any special dietary requirements and preferred times for the meals drop offs or if there is a neighbour the meals can be left with instead. 
dishing up food
Chauffeur services

Cancer treatments often require multiple medical appointments (sometimes in the same week)..  You could offer to help drive your friend to some or all of their appointments. Decide which arrangement you both prefer eg. drop-off-pick-up or park-and-stay. Children and elderly family members may also rely on your friend for transport. You could consider stepping in to help co-ordinate these arrangements too.

Be a coach 

Often during and after cancer treatments, people are advised to examine their lifestyle to look for opportunities for healthier changes like diet or exercise. For some these changes come naturally, but others may need more support. Why not join your friend to make these healthier lifestyle changes? This way you can coach or motivate each other along the way. 

Care for their caregiver

It’s not just your friend who needs support; those caring for them will be feeling some pressure too. Helping a caregiver is an affirmation of support for your friend. Ask if there are tasks around the house that the caregiver is struggling with. It could be getting the groceries, doing dry-cleaning or laundry, paying bills or walking the dog. Anything which takes the pressure off your friend’s caregiver will also help your friend.

Working bee

There are many heart-warming stories of communities arranging working bees for the garden or friends being ‘cleaning angels’ while their friend is away at hospital. 

Organising a working bee can be surprisingly fun and extremely rewarding. You could give the garden some TLC, spring clean the house, clear the gutters or do the washing. With just a few people and a couple of hours you could make a big difference to your friend. 

Chill buddy

Just be there with your friend to create the time and space to ‘chill’. Assure them  that the time is for them to decide; whether they want to talk about what they’re going through, just sit quietly to reflect, or choose an activity they want to do.

There are no rules

It’s important to remember everyone’s journey is different, as are their needs and feelings. There is no defined time when your friend will stop needing your help.   

The best advice is to be guided by your friend, and give them the tools to let you know how best to help them or their caregiver.

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