Summary: Cancer becomes the third wheel in any relationship, especially friendships. It can become very difficult to maintain friendships during treatment and the difficult times you are facing. While some friends fall away in your time of need, other people will step up to fill those roles without ever asking for anything in return. Cancer and illness bring out the true colors in people and this can be a very eye-opening experience. Here you can learn tips and suggestions on how to keep your friendships flowing, even in the stressful presence of cancer.
The diagnosis of cancer can have a serious impact on friendships, creating an unforeseen stressor for you to deal with. This litmus test for your relationships, your illness, will show you a variety of responses and emotions from other, and many will be surprising. In general, we assume that our friends will be supportive in a crisis, but after your crisis hits, we learn the hard way that this may not be entirely true. In the meantime, people we barely know turn into faithful, important and loyal friends.
Most all individuals have some level of fear about cancer, and this makes them unable to manage their own fears in order to support you. It can be very upsetting when a dear friend never calls to check, or never stops to drop a line after they find out about your diagnosis. It can be very distressing when you run into these “friends” in public, only to have them turn away from you like you are an unwanted stranger. Some friends may even pull out of regularly scheduled plans, citing that their lives are now just “too busy.”
Certain behaviors exhibited by your friends may be your first glimpse at how they feel about the situation. Some friends might not have any idea how to respond and feel more awkward about knowing what to say. Here are some possible responses, and why:
- If friends avoid you, do not mention your cancer when you talk, or do not call you, they might:
- Not know what to say
- Be afraid of saying something wrong
- Worry about upsetting you
- Think you do not feel like talking, or are too sick to talk
- Or have moved on from the friendship
- If friends are not visiting you or inviting you to do things, they might:
- Think you do not want visitors
- Be afraid to see you looking different or sick
- Think you are too sick to join in activities
- Feel guilty about having fun when you have cancer
- Or have moved on from the friendship
It is natural to feel upset and disheartened by these actions, and you do not need to forgive every one of those behaviors. It may be helpful for you to try to understand their side of the line and remind yourself that their absence from your life is not about you. It is your ultimate decision is the relationship or friendship is important and strong enough to save. If it is, you will likely say something like, “It’s been too long! We should get together for a coffee or bite to eat.” If you do meet up with your distant friend, try not to be angry or agitated, but do express your disappointment. Honesty and vulnerability will assure that you friend knows you are speaking from the heart, which might soften their own heart and allow for open conversation about the situation. At least this way you can feel that you tried to rekindle the friendship, but you do not need to hold on to it if the other party does not respond.
Thankfully, for every vanishing friendship there are a handful of almost-strangers and acquaintances that will step up into the friend-role you need, and surprise and support you in ways you could never have thought imaginable.
It can be a real challenge keeping friendships through illness and cancer. Here are some tips for keeping up with those friends who choose to stick around and embrace you and your cancer journey.
- Before you start treatment, ask one trusted person in each of your social groups, at your school, workplace, church or temple, to be the point person for sharing information about you with others. This friend can also convey whether you want visitors, emails, phone calls or just warm thoughts.
- Consider setting up a website to update your friends and to organize needed help. Examples include Caring Bride, Care Calendar, or My Life Line.
- You do not have to divulge any information that you would prefer to keep private. It is fine to say: “I would rather not talk about that.”
- Think carefully about how and with whom you want to spend your time and energy. Some friends can quietly keep you company during a chemotherapy treatment while others may be better suited to bringing you a coffee and a chocolate croissant every Tuesday morning. Someone else may be your go-to friend for a night at the movies when you want to have fun.
- You are excused from writing thank-you notes for the duration of your treatment. Saying “thank you” will suffice.
- Pay attention to your friends’ behaviors and words. They may want to hear about your treatments but not be comfortable listening to your intense feelings. You need different people for different conversations.
- Be open to new friends. No one “gets it” quite like another cancer patient. Talk to people in the waiting room or the infusion area. Consider joining a support group. Keep in mind that your cancer buddies may become some of your dearest, life-long friends.
How You can be a Good Friend to someone with Cancer
While there are no set rules or books to follow about friendships, they will always remain a two-way street. In relationships, we must give to get, and vice versa. Here is a myriad of ways you can reach out and reconnect with your cancer-stricken or ill friend.
Make sure your friend knows that they’re important to you. Show that you still care for your friend despite changes in what they can do or how they look.
- Send brief, frequent notes or texts, or make short, regular calls. Include photos, kids’ drawings, silly cards, and cartoons.
- Ask questions.
- End the call or note with “I’ll be in touch soon,” and follow through.
- Call at times that work best for your friend or set times for them to call you.
- Return their messages right away.
Cancer can be very isolating. Try to spend time with your friend. You may be a welcome distraction and help them feel like they did before cancer became a major focus of their life.
- Always call before you visit. Be understanding if your friend cannot see you at that time.
- Schedule a visit that allows you to give physical and emotional support for the caregiver, too. Maybe you can arrange to stay with your friend while the caregiver gets out of the house for a couple of hours.
- Make short, regular visits rather than long, infrequent ones. Understand that your friend might not want to talk, but they may not like being alone either.
- Begin and end the visit with a touch, a hug, or a handshake.
- Offer to bring a snack or treat to share so your visit doesn’t impose on the caregiver.
- Try to visit at times other than weekends or holidays, when others may visit. Time can seem the same to a house-bound patient. A Tuesday morning can be just as lonely as a Saturday night.
- Take your own needlework, crossword puzzle, or book, and keep your friend company while they doze or watch TV.
- Share music they enjoy, watch their favorite TV show, or watch a movie with your friend.
- Read sections of a book or newspaper or find topics of interest online and summarize them for your friend.
- Offer to take a short walk with your friend if they are up to it.
Many people worry that they do not know what to say to someone with cancer. Try to remember that the most important thing is not what you say, it is that you are there and willing to listen. Try to hear and understand how your friend feels. Let them know that you are open to talking whenever they feel like it. Or, if the person does not feel like talking, let them know that’s okay, too.
- Gear the conversation to your friend’s attention span so they do not feel overwhelmed or guilty about not being able to talk.
- Help your friend focus on whatever brings out good feelings, such as sports, religion, travel, or pets.
- Help your friend keep an active role in the friendship by asking advice, opinions, and questions – even if you do not get the response you expect.
- Ask your friend if they are having any discomfort. Suggest new ways to be more comfortable, such as using more pillows or moving the furniture.
- Support your friend’s feelings. Allow them to be negative, withdrawn, or silent. Resist the urge to change the subject.
- Do not tell them how strong they are; they may feel the need to act strong even when they are sad or exhausted.
- Be sure to include your friend when talking to others in the room.
- Assume that your friend can hear you even if they seem to be asleep or dazed.
- Do not offer medical advice or your opinions on things like diet, vitamins, and herbal therapies.
- Do not remind them of past behaviors that might be related to the illness, such as drinking or smoking. Some people feel guilty over those things.
Many people want to help friends facing a difficult time. Keep in mind that wanting to help and offering to be there for your friend is what matters most.
- Take care of any urgent errands your friend or the caregiver needs right away.
- Run an errand for the caregiver; it is as helpful as an errand for your friend.
- Your friend may appreciate it more if you take care of frequent, scheduled errands, rather than fewer ones that take a lot of time.
- Look for ways to help on a regular basis.
- Plan projects in advance and start them only after talking with the caregiver.
There are many ways that both the ill-patient and their friends can continue the relationships, maybe just in a different way. Try to put in the effort it may take for your friend while they fight the battle of their life and support them if you can. If you are a friend that cannot handle your friend’s illness or cancer, be open and honest about the reasons why and that you need to step back for a while for your own reasons. Always take the time to assure your friend that even if you cannot support them or continue the friendship, it is not their fault for this action.