When A Friend Has Cancer

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At the Image Reborn cancer retreat I attended this weekend in Deer Valley, one of the ladies passed around a sheet and asked us to write down five things that impressed us about our friends and family and five things that didn’t help at all during this time. I flipped to the later section immediately. I couldn’t help it.

After my diagnosis last month, I did have a handful of touching, warm fuzzies:
Right after my diagnosis, my sister sent a beaded bracelet and Green Goddess medallion blessed by the Dalai Lama (?), a t-shirt to wear during recovery and a mantra to chill out with. Some people really surprise you.

But what you remember more are the negative instances. Like Dr. Phil’s quote “It takes a thousand ‘atta boys’ to make up for one ‘you’re no good’; it takes 10 well-placed gestures to make up for one lame one.

When Friends Don’t Show

You’re in the midst of the worst reality you could imagine (unless you or one of your family members has been kidnapped and tortured) and when you call the troops to rally, you expect them to, well, rally. You remember those who don’t. Sad but true.

When I asked my best friend of 10 years for a ride to the hospital for surgery, she picked me up then pulled over minutes after getting on the freeway to ask if I could drive because she was too tired. So technically, I drove myself to the hospital.. in her car. When we got to Huntsman Cancer Hospital she sat with me for 10 minutes then looked at her watch, said she had to go and left.

For the two hours between when my friend left and the parents arrived, I was alone and very anxious in a sterile, uninviting examining room. The nurse entered and asked, “Where are your people?” I don’t think I ever felt so alone. Tears welled up.

The next day, flowers (the only flowers I got from someone other than Ryan) arrived from a old friend in Washington that I hadn’t seen in years. Though we speak every week, by email or phone, I didn’t expect flowers. When Ryan walked into my bedroom carrying the bright blooms, I felt her hand reach out and gently touch my shoulder. “You’ll get through this,” they said. I cried. And it made me even more pissed that my other ‘best’ friend who lives 20 minutes away couldn’t surprise me like that let alone sit with me in the hospital.

I know that everyone has their ‘side’ and their own life drama to tend to but when a friend is dealing with something like cancer…on the day of their surgery, you drink a cup of coffee and put your shit on hold for two hours. On the flipside, my parents cancelled their trip to Canada, got in a car and drove 12 hours to be by my side as they wheeled me off- and then as they wheeled me back. That still brings up tears.

BTW, you think you’re extending the olive branch by saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”? You have to actually do something. Otherwise, it’s cliche like saying “bless you” or “how are you?” We know it’s just something you say, like “Sorry for your loss.” 

Drama is Saved For The Sick

Cancer patients aren’t thinking of ways you can help. We’re thinking about not dying, not working, not feeling okay ever again. The heart of the person who asked is well-placed but most patients aren’t going to make much of a generic offer like that. Plus, if we do call later to ask for something, we usually get, “It’s not the right time, we’re really busy, I have to work, the car’s in the shop, I need to sleep or Seinfeld is on, call me next time.”

I can’t tell you how many people I called to see if they could go with me to my first doctor’s consultation before Ryan took the time off work to be there. No one eagerly assumed a position by my side. The “best” friend did go to a consult with one of the surgeons (I saw a total of four doctors in addition to an online panel of medical professionals) but only because it was supposed to be a short one. I was going to go alone but the doctors told me I definitely needed to bring someone because I would be too overwhelmed to think of every question that needed asking or to remember what was said by the doctors. She cried through the whole interview and I felt like I had to take care of her instead of the other way around.

I’m not a victim and I rarely ask for help (primarily because I’m afraid of exactly this kind of thing). I take care of myself. Even Ryan wonders what he can ever do for me. But now I feel like I have an excuse to expect some handholding, cuddling, comfort, flowers, and extra effort. Don’t I?


How It Went Down

The night after my lumpectomy the “best” friend came over with her boyfriend, swept in, exclaimed that they were starving, picked through my refrigerator, made themselves sandwiches, dropped the dirty dishes in the sink and left. I actually thought she was coming to see how I was doing! Didn’t realize I was a convenience store. They gave me a brief hug goodbye and left. No more than 20 minutes. Am I that much of a rock that my friends think this all would be cool with me??

To be fair, it was already a bit chaotic at my house. Another friend of mine had shown up with her daughter for a playdate with Sage. She thought that might help keep Sage entertained while I laid low. it was actually my bad. My friend asked to come visit post knife, and I said, sure, and bring your daughter. We’ll drink some wine, watch a movie, the kids will play…. My parents thought I was nuts but I thought I was strong enough to handle it. it was outpatient surgery afterall.  

Her 5yo refused to play with Sage and kept coming into the living room; Sage cried, the daughter fussed, all night long. Not good for a post-op day. Ryan brought food home for everyone and they slept over – less than 24 hours after surgery. Ryan told me later that he wanted to ask her to leave but he was afraid to offend us. I wouldn’t have minded really. But I would have felt horrible too. The whole thing was my idea in the first place. I just didn’t know. I wish she had picked up that we need a break. I spent the entire next day in bed recovering.

I’m sure my friends have no idea I’m disappointed and saddened. They would see their ‘efforts’ as a grand gesture and my criticism as petty. Maybe. I just have a hard time thinking that it’s not all Lifetime Movie warmth for other women when they learn they have cancer. I’m jealous of the support they have.

If friends truly do want to help, here’s my advice: Make specific offers- like scheduling a day to go to a radiation treatment, or take your friend’s child for the hour they’re getting it done or feeling low, or bring them food instead of eating theirs. Force her to go on a hike or climb a couple of routes so they don’t get fat and lazy, take her for a pedicure, read trashy People articles to her. Don’t make her feel like she’s ruining your day- even if it’s your wedding day. Bring a new pillow to prop her up on her weaker days. And, most importantly, if you do make a commitment, don’t blow it off.

How To Step Up When it’s Cancer

Here’s a great example of stepping up: At my Image Reborn retreat some of the ladies said they were in so much pain that the only thing that helped was medicinal marijuana. Yet because they couldn’t bring it on the plane, they didn’t have any. I called an acquaintance. How much? “It’s on us. I’m glad to be able to help,” she said. The collective gratitude from the group was intense. You could tell it was appreciated just by the catcalls as several Rubenesque women ran naked under the full moon at the Deer Valley retreat house.

Share simple pleasures like a chickflick, a cup of coffee, gossip. Don’t talk about medical issues unless she wants to and never, ever talk about other people’s cancer horror stories (we’ve gone over that one).

Your friend is still the same person she was before cancer, she just needs you to be present a little more, both in spirit and body. She needs you to be what friends are supposed to be.

Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.- Albert Camus


One comment

  • Rachel

    Beautiful and so very helpful right now. Thank you!

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