How to Help When Your Friend Has Cancer
I wanted to do something when Kathleen, my younger single mom friend, was diagnosed with Stage 3A lung cancer. It turned out the irritating cough she had that progressed to alarming non-stop coughing was a symptom of adenocarcinomas. She had never taken a sick day off work, never smoked. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
I didn’t want Kathleen to go through cancer treatments alone. As a neighbor in Delray Beach, Florida, I has seen Kathleen every day, coming and going across the courtyard of our condos. We were close enough that if she had baked a pie and I showed up at her door, she didn’t have to ask why I came over or what I wanted; she’d just say “It’s on the counter.” But now I lived three hours away on the opposite side of the state. What could I do?
I envisioned organizing a group of devoted friends to take Kathleen to her doctor appointments, chemo, clean her house, cook and deliver healthy food, transport her child to play dates, and play with her dog. But when I called my dear friend Jo Lynne’s sister to find out what was the most important thing I could do to help – since she had taken Jo to all her chemo appointments for five years until she died from breast cancer that had metastasized – she said, “Realize it is her journey, not yours.”
Kathleen had decided not to say anything to her 11-year-old daughter and didn’t want to take a chance on her hearing about it from someone else. That left out moms of school friends and neighborhood moms for support. Working out of her home office for a company in New Jersey, she didn’t have co-workers to pitch in. Plus she is very independent and stubborn and didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. She was the strong one on whom everyone leaned. Elizabeth, another good friend from the courtyard, and I decided we were going to walk through this with Kathleen together. There was nothing we wanted more than to support her.
Here is what I learned as a support person for a friend going through cancer treatment.
Getting a cancer diagnosis is so disorienting and scary for most people that it helps to have someone who will drive to and from the doctor and take notes, maybe even ask questions that you and your friend have discussed but that she forgot to ask because of nerves and anxiety. This is not a light commitment. There are the first attempts at gathering information, and then getting a second, or even third opinion; plus loads of tests. Living in the same city, Elizabeth took on this role. She would communicate to me afterwards as it only added to Kathleen’s fears to relive these conversations. She had enough on her plate.
The plan for Kathleen was to have four intense chemo treatments, each three weeks apart, to shrink the tumors before lung surgery. Because I have flexibility in my work assignments, I decided to go to Kathleen’s chemo treatments and stay with her at her house for three to five days afterwards while she recovered. These were not two to three hour sessions by the way. For the first treatment Kathleen was at the clinic for 10 hours. It generally took five to six hours to administer all the bags of fluids, plus time for appointments.
My job was to be Kathleen’s emotional support as well as to offer diversion and run interference when needed. For instance, one nurse could not set the needle in the vein. The pain and tears on Kathleen’s face as she was probed and her hand began swelling was a shock to me, as well as the unsympathetic response of the nurse. It was brutal. Finally the nursing supervisor was called and expertly eased the needle into a vein, with warm reassurance. It takes a special person to be a cancer nurse. Do not hesitate to request a different one.
Our routine was that I would drive from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast the day before chemo. Kathleen’s daughter would stay with her dad until Kathleen was over the worst of her nausea and exhaustion following her treatment. At the clinic, I hung out with Kathleen until after we had some lunch, and then ran errands or went back to her house and rested while Kathleen napped because I got exhausted too. When I returned,Kathleen would be bloated and swollen from all the fluids being pumped into her. It was an effort for her to move let alone follow all the instructions for care once she was home, one of which was to push even more fluids, the last thing anyone would want to do. I made sure she kept drinking water and taking her anti-nausea pills.
We found that it helped to have some chicken soup to stave off nausea as soon as Kathleen got home. We watched shows she had taped like Dr. Phil and Judge Judy. It was good diversion to gossip about the people on TV, and share our best life stories to keep her mind off her hot and cold flushes and nausea. I had thought that the main thing she needed was uninterrupted sleep, but soon understood her fatigue was in the blood. It was the chemo doing its job of killing bad cells. Sleep didn’t really touch that level of weariness. But laughing did.
I don’t cook, so I enlisted Elizabeth and another friend of Kathleen’s who regularly prepares nutritious, delicious food. They came through with wonderful soups and organic ice cubes of healthy juices. I thought it was great, but for Kathleen with her nausea, nothing really appealed. She did better with small portions of comfort food since she wasn’t eating much anyway.
A friend’s first impulse is to find out everything possible about a disease. That’s fine. But you don’t have to tell the patient about your discoveries. Do not relay statistics related to successful (or not) outcomes or push alternative treatments unless that information is requested. Your friend is living with and feeling the overwhelming impact and implications of the disease. That’s enough. Kathleen says the best thing you can do for your friend is to be there for emotional support.
Judy Kirkwood writes articles for print and web publications – national, regional, and local; is a contributing writer to Simply the Best and Boca Raton Observer magazines in South Florida; and plays on the beach and in the pool year-round. Visit her on Facebook @JudysFlorida and please visit www.JudysFlorida.com.
Editor’s note: In the interest of preserving the privacy of the author’s friend, the image accompanying this article is a stock photo rather than a photo of the author’s friend.