We’ve all heard of Job’s friends. Job was going through an epically awful time—kids killed, health gone, miserable, daily suffering—and his buddies wanted to help. So, they told him why all his troubles were his own fault. Great going, guys!
Nobody wants to be like Job’s friends—most truly want to help. When it comes to helping our friends with cancer, what gets us in trouble is our own fear and feelings of helplessness. If you’re not able to acknowledge that cancer is scary, and that you don’t have all the answers—or really, any—you will likely blunder when you try to help your friend. You will speak out of defensiveness, rather than compassion. You will blame or advise, rather than listen and support.
How can you best help cancer patients and their families? As the wife of someone with stage 4 cancer, I have a few ideas. Here’s my Top 10 list:
- Be present. This can mean hanging out by your friend’s bedside or waiting with his spouse during surgery. And don’t think it’s too late to visit once the initial crisis is past—this is often when your friend needs company the most. If you can’t come in person, mail a card, call, or send an occasional text—so long as your friend knows you’re there. One of the most painful things you can do to a friend with cancer is drop off the map.
- Tell us you care. As J.K. Rowling’s Professor Dumbledore once said in the Harry Potter series, “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” Use your magic for good, whether in person, on social media, or via email.
- Listen. Words are powerful, but listening is the rarest gift. When we talk, we’re prone to make unhelpful comparisons, share what we mistakenly think is wisdom, or slip into what sociologist Charles Derber calls “conversational narcissism.” Keep the focus on your friend. Ask how she is feeling, and let her do most of the talking. But don’t ask for a rundown of all her latest treatments, which can be exhausting.
- Give hugs. Cancer patients are constantly poked and prodded in treatment, but this is not the kind of touch that heals. A hug or a pat on the hand communicates caring. There may be times when this is not possible, because everything hurts. But reach out when you can. If you are a close friend or family member of the patient, ask if they’d like a massage.
- Bring food. Food is the nearly-universal love language. Families dealing with cancer are exhausted. Putting together dinner can be overwhelming. Cancer patients can have challenging dietary requirements and unreliable appetites, so you’ll have to ask about these first. But once you conquer the hurdles, there’s nothing quite so helpful as providing a meal, a snack, a restaurant gift card, a Starbucks order, or a favorite treat.
- Have us over or take us out. Don’t assume your friend can’t go anywhere just because he is sick. Ask! It’s boring being home alone all the time, often watching TV because it’s too hard to read with “chemo brain.” Cancer patients and their families need to get out with “normal” people. Provide the opportunity.
- Offer concrete help. This includes financial support, giving rides or airline miles, doing housework, making repairs, providing an overnight stay, pet sitting, picking up a child from school, etc. It’s often the little things—like retrieving someone’s mail—that make the difference.
- Provide fun diversions for the whole family, or individual members. One friend takes our teenage daughter to the pool. Two others took my husband to a baseball game. And we’ve all spent time in another friend’s hot tub. If you know the patient’s circle of friends, try organizing a vacation fund. Any break from the grind of treatment helps.
- Be specific. It’s nice to say, “Let me know if there’s anything you need,” but often it’s hard for the patient to think of anything—or to know what you’re really willing to help with. Instead, try asking, “Would you like me to bring you a hamburger?” Or, “Can I shovel your driveway?” The patient can always say no, but you’d be surprised how often the answer is either “Yes, thank you!” or “No, but I could use….”
- Pray. Even from afar, love helps. Prayers may not always bring about the miraculous healing we want. But they can often be felt. If you don’t believe in the divine, meditating on your friend’s health may not be for you. But most people won’t mind if you pray for them, no matter what their beliefs.
Our family’s cancer battle has demonstrated to me that, without a doubt, there is much we can’t control. But we can control what we do to support others. I’m beyond grateful that, unlike poor old Job, I have friends who really know how to help.