How to be a great mate to someone going through Cancer...
Thank you for being by my virtual side through the roughest year of my life. I count you as a friend that helped me through this battle. I dedicate this blog to you virtual angels and my loved ones who got me through.
My experience of having Breast Cancer and the love and compassion shown by my friends and family and you all, during this past year, has been a humbling and overwhelmingly wonderful one.
I wanted to share the knowledge I gained and the experiences I have had, so that it may act as a blueprint for others coming up the road behind me. Please do share this blog with your friends and family so that no one goes lonely through this experience.
My hope is that you're never in this position, but sadly 1 in 9 women will get Breast Cancer in this country. And the odds just aren't in our favour to go through life, not knowing someone who will march this path with someone or, like me, and be the patient.
My personal BC experience was pock-marked by covid restrictions. So I only saw my immediate whanau and my mum, for about 8 months. This ensured that I didn't get covid from visitors and therefore delay chemo treatments and surgeries. That threat kept me hyper-vigilant and it made me feel safe. But as an extrovert who gains energy in company, I felt the loss of not seeing my friends in the extreme.
But even though a little (or a lot) got skewed and screwed by Covid, I still experienced the most wonderful generosity of my friends and family and joyfully share their awesomeness with you, so that you or your loved ones can do the same in return.
How to be a great friend to someone with cancer
Be in contact.
Send texts, messages, funny memes, leave lovely voice notes. Let your Cancer Warrior know they're in your thoughts. My bestie sent me a joyful, funny or mindful meme to me daily, for 8 months solid. Every single day. I would wake up and there would be a text message from her, without fail. It got to the point where I was excited to wake up, knowing there was a little connection waiting to someone I loved. I can't tell you how much that made my mornings complete, exciting even, wondering what words of wisdom I would have to cheer me up that morning. If you can't do daily, that's ok, the act of sending a lovely message means the world to your Cancer Warrior and life suddenly doesn't feel so lonely.
Be in contact, but don't expect a reply.
You could even say "no need to reply" on your messages so that there is no expectation for your Cancer Warrior to respond. This takes one enormous burden off their shoulders. I liken getting Cancer to going into a vortex where you think of nothing else but the business of dealing with Cancer and even the most mundane tasks become hard. So give them a break, before they break.
Consider pulling together a bunch of people to start a Meal Train or lend support in other ways. You can check out more on this, via another blog I wrote, called The Chemo List.
Your support may look like heading over to their house to fold washing, sort their wardrobe, mow their lawns or clean their pool. Perhaps ferry kids to sports or drop off lunch.
Nothing is off the table in the ways you can offer your help. Just always be in contact first. Rather than say "how can I help?", which might overwhelm the patient or make them feel like they're being a burden, try this instead:
"Hey lovely, I'm here to help, so you choose which would best suit you. I won't take no for an answer: 1. Drop lunch at your door today. 2. Make a meal for your freezer or 3. Take your dog for a walk. Choose 1 or all 3 and I'll jump right on it. Love you! We got your back. Love xxx"
You can chat Cancer but give them a break - and start a WhatsApp Group for questions!
Don't be afraid to chat to your Cancer Warrior about anything other than cancer. Check in with them and then move on to something new, plan an exciting outing for the future, chat TV shows to watch, make them laugh.
In the same vein though, do allow them to talk about what they're going through and if you're a bestie, then allow your Warrior to vent their worries and thoughts. There are so many things going through our minds, all at once and if big decisions needed to be made, then I would often defer to my girl gang, once I had talked it through with my husband, just to cement my plans. A WhatsApp group or three really helped me through some shitty moments - and it felt like I was in a room with my girls.
Flowers are wonderful to receive and so are living plants too! One darling pal in Australia, set me up on a flower subscription across 3 or 4 months and my chemo brain always got a beautiful surprise each month when they arrived. I would forget every month and then, bloom! a fresh bunch of flowers would arrive and I'd be over the moon again.
What about presents?
Some of my nearest and dearest banded together to give my husband and I a night away in a Hotel for a mental health mini-break and later, booked us in a gardener to come and sort our garden out, which had been badly neglected. Books, cupcakes, nourishing moisturisers, bath salts, warm socks, gorgeous scarves and face masks were all given with love to me and each and everyone completely lit me up inside.
Two girlfriends even got together to make me a surprise package of individually wrapped gifts, with notes of when to open them. When I needed a hug, when I needed to smile, when I needed to feel pampered. This was utterly joyful and delightful and of course want to replicate it for other reasons. Ingenious.
Out and about
If your Cancer Warrior is out and about, consider taking them to a fancy movie theatre with recliner seats (perfect for post surgery outings). Plan to get their nails done (you could do this for them at home, using nourishing products and just do a simple filing and paint.
And if they're in isolation still, consider getting tested for Covid before you see them. For them, Covid is still a very real threat.
Hold them close
Know that your friend and/or loved one is likely in an altered state, no matter how normal they appear. My brain really left the building during Chemo and I felt like I was in a bubble most of the time, looking out, being there but not fully present. Allow your loved one the space to just be. It's gonna be tough on you, but just giving them a real or virtual hug and having no expectations is the key. They may not act the same or talk the same, but they still need so much love and care.
Cancer doesn't always mean death but don't tell us we're lucky
This is a tough one for me to write, as every single cancer diagnosis is a nuanced one, everyone has different paths to walk, different prognosis and treatment plans. But please, understand this, not all cancer diagnosis means the worst will happen, many cancers are treatable, many cancers are not and many take years and years to progress. But my god it's the scariest diagnosis to receive, no matter the outcome. Perhaps lay off the platitudes of "one day you'll be grateful for this lesson", "well it's a good way to get a boob job", "at least you have the good kind". I know these are meant as kindnesses, but it forces the conversation to be comfortable to the other person, rather than allow the Cancer patient to feel their feelings. I saw this great meme on @OptionB that writes "I won't tell you it's all going to be okay, but I'm here to embrace the suck with you". That's what we need. A partner or three to walk beside us, not behind, not in front. Beside.
It's also really important to remember that not everyone with Cancer will share their struggle as openly as I did. I'm an extrovert and it helped me immensely to share my story and come to terms with my diagnosis. But I am not everyone. For those friends who don't let you in, this is where you can really shine - leave care packages on door steps, send kind texts, expect nothing in return. Check on your quiet Cancer mates, not just the ones who shout from the rooftops. Those people need you just as much. If not more.
Share your ideas but don't force it down their throats
There are a lot of online ideas about how best to deal with Cancer. Nutrition, exercise, mindset, movement, supplements and more. We are literally bombarded with information as soon as the C word comes into our lives. We are not always ready to receive it or know how to deal with it. The way I took things on board, was slowly. Another decision needed to be made and I would look at the options and the benefits of other support, then bring that on board as and when I needed it.
Books, filled with information for instance, would overwhelm me. Give me the Cliff Notes any day! So I guess what I want to say here is, be helpful when passing on your suggestions, give your Cancer pal a brief recommendation or write it down in a notebook of ideas for them (a really handy tool for anyone going through treatment), so that they can refer back to it or be prompted to look for more information, as and when it suits them.
My nutrition during chemo was 90% Nutrient Rescue and Vogels with marmite. It wasn't until I was out of chemo and the fog cleared, that the real work started. Same with exercise. I knew I should move during chemo, but I had a lot of side effects (Migraines and fatigue) that kept me from doing much, so I would walk a bit and that was it. Once it stopped, then I couldn't wait to get back into it. Surgeries hindered progress, but now I'm nearly 12 weeks post my final surgery and am back into lifting weights and even boxing. YES!!!
One thing I know I would have benefited from, if I was able to see people in person during active treatment, is a friend coming with me on a walk, just a gentle walk up our stupidly steep drive and around the block, that would have been lovely.
You are the best gift
So it turns out, at the end of the day YOU are a Cancer patient's best gift. Just you and your awesomeness. We don't want to feel alone in this hellish road-trip and friends and family make all the difference. Just be yourself, have a cry if you want too, it's ok, it's shit. But friends and family are our lifeline and we love you.
Thanks for reading this very personal account of how to be a friend to someone going through cancer. I hope it resonates and is helpful. I'd be so grateful if you were to share it too. That would mean a lot.
If you have any comments or other ideas on how to be helpful, please do share them below in the comments.
Sisterhood of Style
Beautifully written Emma, thanks so much for sharing <3