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Hawaii_Jake's avatar

What do I say to a very close friend who is dying of cancer?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (25799 points ) October 6th, 2010

This is not just an acquaintance. This is a really close friend. I’ve known him for 12 years, and while we don’t live in the same town, we talk on the phone all the time. I have no secrets from him. I mean none. He knows my most intimate details.

He’s been sick for quite a few years and is very tired. His disease has progressed, and the cancer has moved into his bones in his vertebrae and hips.

Through it all, he has not lost his sense of humor. He has kept working at his job despite terrible pain.

Still, he’s looking at going to the mainland for further treatment.

I just don’t know what to say to him anymore. I’m not sure what my feelings are about it.

Any thoughts?

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31 Answers

iamthemob's avatar

There’s nothing to say. All you can do is wait to see if he asks you for anything. Otherwise, just be there for him as you have been…and let him know that you’re there for him.

tranquilsea's avatar

He would probably appreciate continuing whatever conversations you’ve had with him up until now. Taking his mind off of what he is dealing with can be a great help. But offer to be there for him if he ever needs to vent, cry, or sort things out in his head. If you are able offer to help him in any way he may need.

Make him laugh. Laughter is an amazing thing. It can make you feel 1000 times better.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

I’m very sorry about your friend.
I’m sure he knows by now that you are too if you haven’t already told him.I would just ask him what he wants to talk about.When my dad was dying of cancer we covered alot of different things depending on his mood.Sometimes we would talk about life,other times just goofy things that I knew would crack him up.Hell,I would’ve worn a clown suit to make him smile.

wundayatta's avatar

I think about that a lot. I have a friend who is on death watch. He’s lasted much longer than people thought he would. Still, it’s nearly impossible to see him. Only the family gets to see him.

I don’t think he wants sympathy. My friend has gone past that. I’m not sure about what he thinks of our feelings. I’m going to miss him. That’s what’s on my mind. I’m sad that he’s going. I hate that this is happening to him.

Can we talk about that? I don’t want to take any energy out of him. I’m not mad at him for being sick. I’m just sad. I don’t want his comfort either. I just was to say how much he means to me. I want to tell him about something that we did together that means a lot to me. He may not know about how important it became to me. So I think I’ll tell him that if I get a chance to.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

First of all, say anything that you need to say. It seems that you already have a very open relationship, so I imagine this friend knows how you feel about him. Just make sure that you have said everything that you want him to be sure that he knows. Second, I agree with the others above, try to make him laugh. Engage the sense of humor that he is so lucky to have maintained. It is a wonderful gift when someone who is suffering is able to face the end and hold on to the joy of life and their sense of self. Mostly I would talk about whatever it is that your friend wants to talk about. He is still the same person and I’m sure he wants to be treated as though nothing has changed… most people in this situation do. It can be difficult with reality bearing down on you, but the important thing is to remember that the person you have always known and loved is still alive inside. I’m very sorry that you are going through this, cancer is a devastating thing to watch.

JustmeAman's avatar

I had (have) a very good friend that passed with cancer. He was a great person and I stood by him through it all. As he progressed and it was positive that he was going to pass he elected to stop being fed through a tube. He passed about 4 days later. The one thing I told him before he left was to just let go and be free of the pain. He opened his eyes and tears were coming down his cheeks. He was only able to say one word twice. He looked up at the ceiling and said Angels two times. He passed that evening. I would say to be there for him and keep being the friend that you are. Support all his decisions and hope that he can find a cure that will keep him going.

YoBob's avatar

I have been through this twice, once with a close friend and once with my mother.

The close friend passed first from brain cancer. He had reached a point where he knew he only had a very short time left and he was inviting his friends over one by one to basically say goodbye. I said something like “I wish I knew what to say”. He replied “There really is nothing to say”. That in a nutshell sums it up.

My mom died several years later of lymphatic cancer. My last conversation with her was on the phone. She had been battling the disease for a rather long time and she didn’t seem in any danger of imminent death. Had I known it was our last conversation I don’t know what I would have said or done differently (other than making it in person), but I can’t help but wonder.

Just be there for him/her. Don’t dwell on the inevitable, that will come when it comes. However, treat every conversation as if it were your last, not in a morose way, just don’t leave anything hanging that you might never have a chance to resolve.

hug_of_war's avatar

My uncle has had cancer for 7 years and just had surgery for another recurrence. I’m the one person who doesn’t ask him about the specifics, when we talk I can give him a break from all of the constant cancer talk. We are close even though we live on opposite sides of the US and I feel in these scenarios the best we can do is be their friend. Realistically, I don’t know if being cancer-free is even a possible goal for him, but I do know I can be a source of joy in a ridiculously hard situation. So we talk about baseball, my future, and languages because that’s what lifts him from despair. So you say what he needs you to, whether it’s talk about cancer, or simply laughing together.

Last time we talked he told me if not for my call he would have spent the whole day depressed. I think the gift of friendship is the best we can do, It’s hard, really hard. It makes me tear up writing this, because he is one of the few people who just gets me, no explanations needed.

AmWiser's avatar

Its not that you don’t know what to say, you just don’t know how to say what you think you need to say. You know your friend better that anyone and you say he knows you, I would think he just wants you to be there in the capacity you always have, a friend. If he has accepted the inevitable, you should accept it with him.

marinelife's avatar

Take your lead from your friend. If he speaks of his upcoming death, accept it and follow his lead. If he does not speak of it, then you should not either.

Talk about shared memories and shared laughter,

CaptainHarley's avatar

I will probably soon be facing the same thing your friend is facing, and I would want someone to hold my hand ( whether literally or figuratively ), someone to whom I could talk about the pain and the sense of loss, someone who could just listen sympathetically and simply BE there for me. Sometimes what you ARE to someone is far more important than what you DO for them.

Cruiser's avatar

So sorry about your friend…tough spot to be in. You are probably taking this harder than he is. He probably looks forward to your calls immensely and I simply would do everything possible to make sure they continue up to the end. Best to both of you!

Jeruba's avatar

I’m not sure what my suggestion is worth, but when a good friend who lived far from me suddenly became terminal and the word went out, I wrote her a letter. I was pretty nervous about it, not knowing what to say, but I wrote from the heart. After expressing my sorrow at her illness, I began by recalling vividly how we met, described several experiences we had shared, and ended by saying that I would miss her and would remember her.

I heard nothing back, nor did I expect to. She passed away shortly thereafter, and we sent our condolences. Months later, at Christmastime, I received a card from her husband saying that she had been really touched by my letter and that it had been read aloud at her memorial service.

GracieT's avatar

YoBob is correct. Just tell him that you don’t know what to say. What you should do now isn’t saying, it is being with him. That way you are showing him that he matters to you, because so many people will have left him.

Jabe73's avatar

I do not know your situation. I went through this with my dad, uncle and one friend not too along ago myself. I can only tell you what I did, I tried to avoid the topic of death even though it was very obvious in my father’s case. I waited for him to bring up the subject of death himself though we tried to fight his cancer deperately, even through alternative methods once conventional treatments could do no more for him.

The one thing that helped and we talked about it (though I waited for him to bring it up first) is we would see each other again in the next life and he would always be watching over us. I am going through this with my last living cousin who has liver cancer. I can only tell you what made it easier for us in my own situation since in this case death was very obvious.

gondwanalon's avatar

Sometimes such as this, silence is the kindest way to go.

JilltheTooth's avatar

Keep up the calls. Keep up the humor. Laugh at his jokes, even if you find them tasteless and grotesque related to his disease. (Cancer patients are masters of tasteless black humor, which is often not appreciated by folks outside the chemo ward, but we thought it was hilarious!) Even though your own heart is breaking, let him talk about it all he wants, but don’t bring it up yourself beyond expressing concern. Trying to maintain a feel of normalcy in the relationship is very important. I never considered myself terminal when I had cancer, (I very deliberately wouldn’t consider myself terminal) so I resented the people who put me in the ground while there was still hope. If he’s seeking further treatment, he still has hope.
Let him know how much you care, but don’t make him responsible for comforting and reassuring you. Be his best friend.
Damn, I hate that you have to go through this.

GeorgeGee's avatar

Since he’s not lost his sense of humor… Maybe he’d like some “dead and dying” jokes? Maybe you could plot together, ironic ways to go, things to do before you go. Imagine ways to run up his charge card in advance and then declare bankruptcy in the afterlife? Everyone dies, that’s a given, but there’s no rule that says you can’t have a little fun on the way out. If I were expected to die overnight, I think watching old three stooges episodes while holding hands with a loved one would be a pretty good way to go. When a dear friend died and we went through her things, we found a box of gifts, with labels like “Susan-Christmas.” It might be nice to plan a couple such things (words, cards, gifts), even for far away events like for Johnny’s high school graduation, even though he’s only 9 now.

Plucky's avatar

I have had brain tumors for about 9 years. When I was first diagnosed, I was given 6 months to live. The one thing I wanted most, after the initial shock and sadness, was my best closest friend to be with me. We talked, we were silent, we cried, we held eachother, etc. Just being together helped me immensely.
Since then, I have mostly recovered…I have one hardy tumor left and it has been dormant for the last 2 years. I truly believe that if I did not have my close friend with me ..I would have given in.
Now, I’m not saying your time and support will “save” him. But it will make a world of difference in how he experiences the rest of his days.
Watch funny movies together, tell jokes, cuddle, enjoy good food, do silly make overs ..etc. Anything you can both do that you enjoy.
And, please tell him what you need to before he passes. You will both benefit from that.

Just be you and continue to do what you have been doing…he seems to like that ;)

I feel for you.

Jude's avatar

I don’t know how to answer this, as this is too hard for me. But, what I do want to say to you is that my heart goes out to you and you’re in my thoughts. I am very sorry.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@Jeruba… that doesn’t surprise me that your letter would be read at her funeral. You’re quite the lady. : ))

stratman37's avatar

11 When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. 13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

Bagardbilla's avatar

One never knows what is appropriate or not at times like these… however, a quote from Rumi always sooths me:
”...I was born of a mineral, I died.
I was reborn as a plant, and was consumed.
I was born into an animal, lived, and died as one.
I was then born into the human form, I live and will die too.
When have I become less from dying?
I shall pass on from this world and be reborn amongst angles”.
I’m sorry for your friends illness and will hold you both in Light.

Pandora's avatar

Tell them that you will be always ready with love and support. And whenever they need a friend who will listen without judgement and a shoulder to cry on or someone to share the joys of tomorrow with, that they can count on you.
I think people fear most to leave love ones behind. So assure your friend that you will be there for their family if it should come to that.
And if they should decide to fight the illness that you will do all that is necessary to help. Meals, babysitting, help cleaning their home, transportation for kids, transportation to and from the hospital.
Tell him you are proud to have a friend such as himself and that your life has been all the richer for it. And if he is looking for permission to let go that you think it is ok to be tired and you will not think any less of him.
I realize know that when my dad was dying he was getting angry that we where clinging on to him. It made him feel guilty for wanting to give up fighting a battle he was losing.
I would never listen to him talk about what he wanted for us to do after he was gone. I didn’t want him to give up. I think it made him feel alone in the end.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

I would say to him what I just said to my good friend who passed because of cancer, “slow go” is better than “no go”. Living with cancer sucks, but each day you are hear is a victory in a sense, and you never know what medically could pop up. Other than that just reminding him of how much you enjoy his company and will miss it when he is gone. But each of us will make that dance with the reaper one day.

If he don’t know what he want done at the end discuss it with him. Do he just want a memorial and no funeral? Do he want just close friends are all who wish to attend? What he hope his obits would say? It may seem kind of morbid but he might at least feel he has some control over the situation yet. But there is nothing that can be said to make it all better.

Response moderated (Unhelpful)
Joybird's avatar

You don’t need to “say” anything. You continue to keep an emotionally intimate container within which they can talk openly about their experience..their fears, their challenges, their current accomplishments, thoughts, desires etc. You might want to ask openly if they have a list of todos that you can help with or make happen. You might ask about end of life decisions regarding the people around them and how you can support him in making those things occur. But other than that you are doing everything possible. My condolences in what must be a heart wrenching time. Don’t forget yourself in this process. What do you need in order to hold memory of this beloved person in the future. Time to amass the pictures, the letters, the mementos and maybe create something for yourself that in time you will need to help yourself heal. I have an alter for such memorializing. Some people have a keepsake box. Others use albums of pictures. This could be a process for both of you.

Arewethereyet's avatar

It sound like your friend is living with his terminal disease rather than dying, it sounds subtle but the approaches to terminal end stage disease is important to grasp. People with terminal illness are not just the illness, they still ‘Are’ the person you love.

Most palliative clients I’ve had say the saddest and hardest thing has been, outside to dying and leaving their loved ones, is when others stay away because they are afraid or because they don’t know what to say. Don’t worry about not knowing, what is Impotant is to BE there. Also practical things Doing rather than offering to help is valuable.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@Arewethereyet That is an answer built on courage. GA

Inspired_2write's avatar

Ask him If there is anything that you could help him with?
Tell him how much you appreciate his friendship.
Ask him how he is coping?
Can you help, are you capable of understanding his issues?

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