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Nov 13

What you can do to help a friend going through cancer

Last night, I got a message from an old friend. Not our annual ‘it’s almost thanksgiving so let’s talk about Jesus and the Kosher Turkey’ message (still one of my all time favorite things on the internet, ever). The kind of message that sadly pops up too often on my screen: ‘My friend is starting chemo. What can I do to help her?’

I never wanted to be an expert at this, but if I have to be good at something, let this be it.  I’ve written about this before, but with more time and distance from treatment, it might be a good time to go over it again.

My first stab at is was Social Niceties and the Etiquette of Cancer. I re-read that post often. If you take one thing away from it, let it be this: not everyone wants to hear they look good. Some people do. Figure out which one your friend is and then respect it. if she is going to be all fancy and put on eyebrows, tell her they look great. And if she is going to wrap a t-shirt around her head and walk around in pajama pants, don’t tell her she looks good. She knows she doesn’t and she doesn’t care.

The second stab was more of a list of do’s and don’t, and this is what i would like to expand on, especially when it comes to chemo, since this is what my friend was asking about last night: what can we do to help her through chemo?

  • our motto was ‘socks, charger, knitting’ – keep it simple but bring the essentials to get through the day. It takes a long time, it’s very boring, your phone battery will die.
  • I would say tablet and movies over books. I lost all ability to concentrate and read. I would read the same page over and over again and not remember what I was reading. People magazine is great, no brain cells required.
  • a soft blanket is nice. chemo rooms are notoriously cold and hospital blankets tend to be rare.
  • snacks: your taste buds are shot to hell and you might not have much of an appetite, but bringing snacks is a good idea because once you are hooked up to the IV, you are not going anywhere. My snack of choice was chips because the salt killed the metal taste.
  • Don’t let your friend go alone. This is a touchy one to write about, because I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t have support. But because life is life and my chemo fell during everyone’s summer vacations, I went alone, a lot. and it was brutal. So lonely and boring. So if you know someone going through chemo, make sure *someone* pops in on them for a little while each time. Doesn’t have to be the whole day. You could just drop by, spill your coffee all over the floor and go back to work. It’s been done. 😉
  • Pack her freezer. Hot meals are GREAT. A well stocked freezer is even better. Because of afore-mentioned lost tastebuds, and because if there are kids in the house, having the flexibility of picking what you feel like eating AND not having to cook is really the best gift you can give someone. Whatever you do, go easy on the banana bread.
  • Gaviscon! or any other heart-burn med of your choosing. Buy it and send it to their house in a care package. Because with chemo comes heartburn, and it usually comes at 2 am.
  • Do the reaching out. Don’t expect your sick friend to call you and say ‘hey, it would be great if you could bring me chips and People magazine’ NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. When people are fighting cancer, tasting metal, losing their hair and peeing red chemo, the don’t know that they want chips and People magazine. YOU are the one with the working brain cells, figure it out!
  • If the person has kids, offer to do something with or for them. Play dates, movies, food, LUNCHES, anything. the kids are going through hell too. And the parents are overwhelmed.
  • I had a housekeeper, so I didn’t have to worry about household chores. But I know this is a HUGE help. So if you can pop in, say hi, throw in a load of laundry or change the cat litter box, your friend will love you forever.
  • Don’t make blanket offers. ‘call me if you need anything’ is like saying: ‘good luck with that, I have no idea what to do so I’ll just pretend I want to help and I’ll do nothing’. Do something. Don’t know what to do? you can never go wrong with chips and People magazine