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Trustinglife's avatar

Any suggestions for how to be with a close friend who just got cancer news?

Asked by Trustinglife (6589 points ) February 7th, 2009 from iPhone

It’s malignant, but we are still waiting for tests next week. I live a few hours away, and am visiting him now overnight.

We are close, and can talk about anything. Still, it feels awkward for me, and I’d be curious to hear suggestions, particularly from those who have been through it on either side. What worked?

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32 Answers

KrystaElyse's avatar

My close friend was diagnosed with breast cancer about 3 years ago. She went through chemo and had to undergo a double mastectomy, but thankfully now she is healthy and cancer-free. One piece of advice I can give you is to be a good listener. You can show your friend that you accept how he feels, which in turn may make him more comfortable about talking openly with you as he normally does and it will be less awkward for you.

Make sure that when you visit to set aside time to focus on him and not other distractions. Also make sure you respect his wishes. Some days he might want to talk about it, other days he might want to focus on other things, and that’s where you come in. Even though this is a serious and stressful time for everyone, know that it’s okay to laugh and tell jokes. One thing my friend stressed to everyone was that she didn’t want people around her to pity her and talk about her cancer 24/7. She wanted people to have fun, act how they normally acted and not focus on her illness.

With that said, I really hope everything works out for your friend. You are doing a lot already by being there for him during this difficult and scary time. Take care.

nikipedia's avatar

My cousin’s beautiful baby girl was just diagnosed with a brain tumor. I didn’t really know what to do either, but I think a lot of people faced with that not-knowing choose to do nothing. And I think that might be even worse.

So I did what I do best. I did some research. I contacted a friend who works at the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) and asked her advice. I looked up all the articles I could find on the type of tumor she has. I looked for clinical trials studying this kind of tumor.

I’m not sure anything I found was useful. But it made me feel a little better to be doing something, and I passed it on to my cousin, who was grateful for the information. The stuff I got from the ACS was the best. They had clear-cut advice, like “bring a tape recorder to the consultation with the oncologist” and “get a second opinion, no matter what.” It helped to have concrete advice to pass on to my cousin instead of just condolences and hope.

I don’t know if your friend will feel the same way. But if you can’t think of anything else, it’s probably better than nothing? I don’t really know. There is no right answer in this kind of situation.

I am so sorry to hear about your friend. Please keep us updated, if you think of it. I hope the next news is good.

cdwccrn's avatar

Excellent advice above.
Just be yourself, honoring the friendship the way that feels natural to you. Let him take the lead and you follow.
Your gift of time is the best.

galileogirl's avatar

Always take your cues from your friend. If they need to grieve be there with compassion but I feared the distraction of dealing with other people’s emotions so I didn’t tell any friends until the surgery was over and I knew the probable outcome. In the 2 weeks between diagnosis and the colonectomy I had to concentrate on getting things in order and only told my siblings who lived far away but who would have to take care of things if the worst happened. I arranged for a local niece to use my car so she could shop for me until I could drive. By the time school started a month later, it was pretty much past the sympathy stage.

bythebay's avatar

“I’m your friend through thick and thin;
I don’t know what to say other than I’m sorry this is happening to you and I’m here for you.”

some of the nicest words ever said to me

janbb's avatar

I think all of the suggestions are good ones. Try to follow your friend’s leads. I know from your posts here that you are a thoughtful, compassionate person, trustinglife, so I’m sure you will do just fine.

nebule's avatar

I’ve never been in this situation but I would imagine the best thing to do is…just love

scamp's avatar

I agree with the others. Just be yourself and follow your friend’s lead. Don’t be afraid to tell him about your concern for him, but try not to let that be the focus of the whole visit. Let him tell you as much or as little as he wants, then spend time doing something distracting and uplifting for him.

I’ve not had to help many people with cancer, but I am drawing from my experience with my borther after he broke his neck and became paralyzed from the chin down. he wouldn’t let me visit him until a year later because we were so close and he was worried that he would seem scary to me. The first time I visited him, I coached myself to be strong for him and to act as natural as I could.

When I got to the hospital, it took me a half hour to get brave enough to walk into his room. I took a deep breath. stepped into his room, and completely blew it! I cried and blubbered all over him…... exactly what I didn’t want to do. He cried too. He was very thin, because he had only been fed by IV for the year he spent in the hospital, and he said he thought I wouldn’t recognize him. I told him I would always know him and he couldn’t disguise himself well enough for me to miss who he was. After that first few minutes of tension, we became who we always were… brother and sister… best friends.

Over the years, when I flew from Florida to Ohio to visit him we both learned how to compensate for his lack of movement. We played board games, and I moved the peices for him…things like that. His wife said he always seemed brighter when he knew I was coming to visit because I was the only one who acted natural around him. Beleive me, it wasn’t easy, but you can do it with parctice.

You didn’t say what type of malignancy your friend has, but cancer is not neccessarily a death sentence these days. Help your friend remember that, and try to help him stay calm about it as much as possible. Please let us know what happens and how he is doing. I’ll keep you both in my thoughts and prayers.

Zaku's avatar

I’ve heard that it’s appreciated to have support that excludes worry and can talk about other things. Someone I know has been avoiding friends and avoiding talking about it, because she feels like she ends up supporting their grief about her medical condition.

janbb's avatar

One thing I’ve heard is that if you are trying to help a sick friend (not just emotional support) don’t say, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” Suggesting specific things you can offer to do (or just doing them) is much more likely to be helpful that a generic statement.

Trustinglife's avatar

You all warm my heart. Thank you so much – such a great way to wake up. I feel less alone, and I will take all your kind words and difficult experiences, and your compassion, with me.

scamp's avatar

@Trustinglife You’re a great guy and a wonderful friend. I wish you both all the best.

gailcalled's avatar

With me, it helped enormously to have my friends ask me what would help. Sometimes it was a milkshake, other times a shoulder to cry on, bad jokes or funny videos, etc.

Jack79's avatar

well my mother fought it and got through it ok, but we’re not really close so I can’t help. My aunt fought and lost, and I was just there the last few days, just keeping her company.

I think for now there’s not much you can do, but things are already pretty bad and if your friend stays alone then it will only get worse. Just remember that you ARE in fact making a difference, simply by being there. Imagine how much worse he’d be without you.

btw you helped me recently just by saying kind words online. I’ve been on the verge of giving up for weeks now, and it is people like you that have kept me going (and above all my girlfriend of course). But every little counts. So thanks again :)

cdwccrn's avatar

hang in there, Jack.

Jack79's avatar

thanks, I’m fine now. Reaching the end of the line soon :)

Trustinglife's avatar

Glad to hear my words have been a support. Hopefully I can do the same for my friend…

wundayatta's avatar

I’ve heard a couple of complaints from people I know with cancer:

1) the visitor cries because they are so upset, and the person with cancer has to comfort the visitor. It’s supposed to be the other way around.

2) The only thing that visitors want to talk about is the cancer and what’s being done. Some of this is ok, but they also want to talk about other things.

3) They don’t like it when people act as if it’s a funeral. Not yet it isn’t.

4) Sometimes friends just disappear when they find out you have cancer. They can’t deal with it for whatever reason. This is not good. They need their friends now more than ever. No matter how hard it is, be there for them.

5) It’s hard to say the same thing over and over. If the hospital has something like “Carepages” where people can post their messages and progress reports, then everyone can go there to get an update, and leave visits free for other things besides health discussions.

So, TL, what other people said—stay with your friend, follow their lead, but don’t avoid things either. You want the visit to feel good and make them feel supported. You do not want to make things harder for them.

cak's avatar

Ok – current cancer patient here – first, I agree with gailcalled. In and out, you need a little bit of everything; however, for me, at the very beginning, it was very odd for me. We didn’t tell people right away, but the day that we did tell people, I had more bad news added to the pile of doo that I already was in. It was like I couldn’t breath, there was this loud swishing sound in my ears and then I had friends coming over. It was hard for me, for my husband and for my friends. My children were at another friend’s house, that we had told earlier that morning.

I had a friend come over and ignore it, completely. My reaction – did she know? I truly thought my husband told her. I just rolled with her normal conversation. Another stopped by with so much information, that it was overwhelming. I was numb. Again, I smiled and thanked her, but since it hadn’t set in for me, I couldn’t take all the information in, I wasn’t ungrateful, I was just numb. Another came over, walked in crying. Truly, I thought someone died. I comforted her, consoled her and wound up laughing.

One of my best friends in the entire world, probably next in line after my family, walked in and said, “Damn. When you get sick you do it right, don’t you! If you needed some attention, why didn’t you just say you felt neglected. Now, you have to lose you hair and feel crappy. I’m still not cooking for you. I can’t cook, but I’ll bring you pizza.” I laughed and cried with her. She acknowledged it, told me I needed to accept it and get it together. But to remember that I was human and it was okay to be completely pissed off – which I was – and still am.

It’s ok if you cry, it’s ok if it scares you – just be upfront about it. Don’t pretend you know the answers, believe me, there are none.

The best person – outside of my husband, was my Dad. He reminded me that I am a fighter and there is no giving up. (not exactly what he said, but that’s what he meant.) He was great, he brought over our favorite junk food meal – brats…yum!! This was the Saturday after I was diagnosed. We had a great cold beer, together and our brats. I’ve never shared that conversation – and I never will. I just knew then how perfectly awesome he truly was.

Just be honest. Be yourself. Be true to your friend.

bythebay's avatar

@cak: Sending you more lurve & hugs than Fluther can hold!

cak's avatar

@bythebay – thank you! :)

Jack79's avatar

actually we should send some to her friend too. sounds like a great friend cak. Hope it all goes well for you :)

cdwccrn's avatar

@cak: you continue to be in our prayers.

lifeflame's avatar

I found this helpful. There’s a lot into this biography about being a support person: Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber.

jackfright's avatar

I slapped him, then screamed at him.

it’s not something you want to do will all potential cancer patients, but with my particular friend, it was just what he needed. some like the sympathetic approach, others may not. my friend thanked me for being the only friend of our group to treat him as a normal man instead of with pity.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

I find that the best way is to be upfront about it.I know I’ve appreciated it when I’ve been ill,l would just bring it up straight away.Ask them if there’s anything you can do for them,if they want to talk about it,or do anything,then just get on with your relationship with this person.You’ll find out about any limitations as they arise,if at all.I think you are a great friend to this person just for asking this question.It’s really tough when you get a bad diagnosis on anything.My heart goes out to your buddy :)

faye's avatar

I’m wondering how your friend is doing and what did you do?

wundayatta's avatar

All I have to say is “fuck!” Another one of my friends has just received worse news. He’s been dealing with brain cancer for a little under a year now, and he just had an operation to remove necrotic tissue and he’s not doing well.

I never know what these things mean. I tend to assume the worst. But people stay alive long after I’ve prepared myself for the worst. I don’t know what to do, really. I’m not afraid of being with my friends or of talking about death or love or any of it. It’s just that I don’t want to be a burden on them, and so I don’t talk about my fears and… I don’t know. That seems to put a distance between us.

My friend is home, in bed. He can’t really talk. He has seizures regularly. And he’s young. I’m not sure if he’s even 60 yet. And he’s been a very health-concerned person all his life—eating a heart healthy diet, and taking various supplements. He’s a researcher who investigated one of the supplements. I think he found that red rice helps reduce cholesterol. Something like that.

So it’s highly ironic that someone who spent their life devoted to being healthy should get caught out by brain cancer. It’s scary. I worry about him. I wish I could do something, and I plan to visit and such, but it’s not the same as being able to chase the cancer away. But I feel helpless and sad. The uncertainty is hard to deal with.

janbb's avatar

@wundayatta I’m very sorry to hear that.

nebule's avatar

@wundayatta yes, really sorry to hear that too…always here ya know if you need xxx

wundayatta's avatar

Thanks guys. The news is not good. But no one has said that it’s dire. Yet. I think he can pull through. Although a lot of it is out of his hands.

nebule's avatar

all the best, sending you love and thoughts xxx

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