Don’t Be a Jerk When Your Friend Has Cancer
Six practical tips from a cancer patient on how to be a true friend.
Originally published at ElephantJournal.com
After my cancer diagnosis in the fall, I’ve observed a lot about how people tend to react to their friend’s news. These karma yoga (yoga of service/action) tips will give you a place to start when one of your friends faces down a health challenge, hopefully with you by their side.
1. Never say, “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know …” and then leave it open-ended.
I can’t count how many people say this, and then never actually do anything to help. Your friend’s brain is full, and probably foggy from treatments. She has more important things to do (like remember which doctor’s appointments to go to when, which medicines to take, and what to eat) than to create a social itinerary for all her friends. If you’re going to offer to do something, have a couple of ideas in mind and then ask your friend when might be a good time to do them.
If you can’t think of anything here are a few starters:
Depending on how mobile your friend is, take her out to tea for an hour or bring tea to her house and hang out for a little while.
If you love to cook, bring a meal to your friend (and then stay and share it with him).
Some illnesses mean your friend won’t be able to drive himself anywhere, so maybe he’s getting cabin fever from being stuck inside all the time. Pick up your friend and get him out of the house for a little bit. It could be a simple scenic drive somewhere in the city or country to just look around. No one even needs to get out of the car.
Your friend might not have a lot of energy, so you can come over and do her dishes or a load of laundry, all while enjoying some quiet time with her.
If you can afford it, buy a couple massages and go together with her (or mani/pedi).
Take your friend to the movies or bring a DVD to watch together.
Bring over some pantry essentials from the grocery store.
Drive your friend to a doctor appointment and hold her hand while she waits.
If you live far away, mail a care package full of little creature comforts.
These things may not even take an hour of your time, and your friend will feel your love and be grateful.
2. Don’t make empty promises.
Be sincere. If you offer to do something for your friend, don’t be a flake. I can’t understand why so-called friends keep contacting me to insist on coming to help, and when I offer a couple suggestions I never hear back. This is hurtful. If you can’t do what your friend suggests, be honest about it and offer to do something else (see list above). If you can’t or won’t follow through, then don’t bother making an offer to help in the first place.
3. Don’t run for the hills.
Cancer brings up a lot of different emotions for different people, but its pretty-much guaranteed that your friend is probably lonely and afraid. Maybe you are afraid, too. Too many “friends” suddenly become “too busy” or simply stop calling. So, sack up and show up for your friend, even if all you can muster is the courage to play an online game of Scrabble.
4. Don’t disappear.
If you’re a true friend, you will still be there for your friend long after the initial shock of diagnosis. Your friend will need your companionship even more several months after diagnosis, when everyone else has forgotten and returned to their busy lives. Be consistent and try to give your friend something she can count on, even if it’s just a bi-monthly cup of tea or a weekly phone call.
5. Don’t dwell on the negative.
Give your friend an actual phone call (in addition to quick texts or emails throughout the month). In this age of texting and electronic communication, the healing power of actual human to human contact is totally underestimated. Give your friend a chance to tell you how they’re doing/feeling, and then gently guide the conversation to a pleasant topic.
Often times, your friend just needs to be acknowledged. Cancer can be terribly isolating, so don’t be part of the problem. Even when your friend is not feeling well, they will be uplifted to hear your voice on the other end of a phone call. Sometimes they may not be in the mood to talk, but will probably enjoy listening to the comforting sound of your voice anyway.
Especially during times when they may be cooped up in the house, it can be a nice diversion when you just call and talk to your friend about what’s going on with yourself. Your friend will be able to offer an ear to you, and she can take her mind off her own problems for a little while, too.
6. It isn’t all about you.
Sometimes your friend may not feel like talking to or seeing you. Don’t let that hurt your feelings. More importantly, don’t let that discourage you from continuing to be there for him in the future. If he doesn’t feel like seeing you one day, see if there’s another time that would be more convenient, and then follow through.
These are just a few simple things that can bring comfort to your friend in need, and you’ll get the added bonus of building a stronger foundation to your friendship. Do them and you won’t become the Jerk who once had a friend fighting cancer.