What do I say or do for a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer?
This is a toughie. It really depends on the diagnosis and how close you are but tea and sympathy is a good place to start. It is always worth finding out from your friend whether they want to talk about it or cry and hug it out or carry on like nothing is happening. Everybody seems to like different types of treatment. I liked to talk about it and probably bored everyone stupid but even I would have days where I just wanted to go for lunch with a buddy without being the poor victim! Just ask.
The worst thing you can do is simply cease all contact because you don’t know what to say, a number of people I previously felt close to did this and then apologised for being so rubbish later when I was well again. If you find talking to your newly diagnosed pal too difficult, start off by establishing contact by text. Ask them if you can help or ask what their treatment plan is and whether they want a hug. You will probably discover they are still the same lovely funny person you became friends with.
I always recommend giving people this “must read” book: David Servan Schreiber – Anti Cancer A New Way of Life as it is really inspiring and gives a newly diagnosed patient hope that if David managed to survive for 20 years after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour there is a chance that they will be ok. The book is packed with loads of useful studies about food which reduces inflammation and other tips and it is really user friendly and upbeat.
The book extolls the benefits of certain foods and so maybe you could take a care package with posh green tea, dark chocolate, turmeric, ginger, garlic, berries, broccoli and red wine. Who knows if any of it works but it really helped me feel more in control when I followed his lists.
Some gifts I received while I was ill were so perfect that I wondered how the givers knew those items would be so useful (bear in mind I am a girl and some of these things may not be so happily received by a sick man!):-
Good hand cream – chemo patients have to be so careful not to catch illnesses that they wash their hands about a million times a day, hence getting rough dry skin.
Nice body cream – chemo does wonders in drying out all your skin.
Epsom salts for the bath (although ask your consultant if it is ok for you to bathe in these salts as they are quite powerful in a magnesium kind of way).
Some good quality essential oils: ginger and peppermint can help with nausea, lavendar can help with everything – it’s a miracle oil, I even rubbed it on my bald head after treatment had finished as it is supposed to benefit hair growth NOTE always use essential oils diluted in a carrier oil (almond or coconut etc).
You could give your friend a foot reflexology chart and an essential oil guide book. I found that it really helped to put the relevant essential oil on the parts of my foot, which corresponded to the particular ailment du jour! If I had headaches I would find the best oil for headaches by looking in my book and then put this oil on the “head” part of my foot. Even if you think this is all nonsense, it gives you something to do and you do smell nice and not sick!
If your friend is going into hospital or is having a PICC line inserted (I loved my PICC line as it meant that the chemo was much more straightforward, I didn’t have 4 failed attempts to get a cannula into my elusive veins every time I needed treatment), maybe consider bringing them a soft pashmina or blanket (as once you are plugged in for treatment you can’t take off / put on sweaters etc.)
One of the best gifts you can give a friend is to offer to help them, maybe take their kids for the day or cook the struggling family a big lasagne or take them a cake. It is so hard to remain enthused about cooking for the family if you are shattered from treatment or just feeling sorry for yourself. Or you could offer to do the school run or walk the dog or change their sheets, tidy up, do the ironing. Again, just ask your friend what they would find the most helpful or what they dread doing.
If possible try to get your friend to take walks in green spaces with you. They don’t have to walk fast or far if they are tired but just get them outside to be with nature, especially woods if you can find some close by.
Send regular texts to see how they are but end the text with something like “please don’t feel obliged to reply, I just wanted you to know I’m thinking of you”.
I was very lucky to have friends and family, especially my husband and my mum, I know it would have been so hard without them.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you can think of other things people should / shouldn’t say to someone dealing with cancer or gifts people might consider getting their sick friend.
Finding your way through the multitude of cancer websites:
When you (or your loved one) get your diagnosis you obviously google it, despite the doctors telling you not to, and then you find a multitude of websites each maybe saying something slightly different, you read medical reports on your type of cancer, which you don’t understand but which sound really scary (without realising that the patient in the report may have been a different age or may have suffered from some other condition making the report completely irrelevant to your situation!).
To help keep you on the right path these are the sites we find most helpful:-
Macmillian Cancer Support: https://www.macmillan.org.uk
This website is brilliant for clear understandable information about most conditions and treatments. The charity is wonderful at helping people through the during and after and at supporting the family. Contact them to see how they can help you or your nearest and dearest.
The family are often forgotten as the main aim is to get the cancer sufferer through the experience. Actually the person with cancer is benefitting from all types of “attention” from GPs, consultants, nurses, counsellors etc whereas the friends and family are struggling while watching their loved ones go through this ordeal. They may feel helpless, they may fear the worst, they will probably have to get on with life, doing the laundry, feeding the kids, doing the school run, tidying the house, basically taking on all the duties of the sick person, without getting many pats on the back or regular reassurance provided on the chemo wards. Maggie’s helps all of you. Just drop in, no appointments are required.
NHS Cancer pages: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cancer/
The NHS site is informative with many useful links to local specialist hospitals and support services. We found this site a little depressing to read immediately upon diagnosis as it is so matter of fact when you really want to read lots of success stories.
Mayo Clinic: mayoclinic.org
This not for profit academic medical centre in the USA has a lot of useful information.
Breast Cancer Care: breastcancercare.org.uk
This is a support organisation specifically to help those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer both during and after treatment. They offer a forum upon which you can talk to people like you.
Cancer Research: cancerresearchuk.org
This site has so much useful information, an online chat forum and a nurse helpline. It will also keep you up to date with the most recent research and clinical trials.
Plenty of information about cancers in the blood and lymph system including a list of sensible questions to ask your doctor.