“Don’t Be a Jerk When Your Friend has Cancer,” recently posted on Elephant Journal and re-shared on Facebook by my friend and writing teacher, Susanna Harwood Rubin, provides 6 practical tips for friends of cancer patients, 6 tips to avoid jerkdom. Danielle Foushee, the writer, is an artist and yoga teacher who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in November 2011. Look at her art on her website. She’s seriously awesome.
But her friends are assholes.
While I really appreciated her post, it also made me a little uncomfortable and sad — because it brought up unhappy memories and also because I wished less disappointment for Danielle and more comfort. And much better friends. From the sounds of it, her friends suck.
Her six tips are (and please don’t use this as your excuse not to read the original piece. Click through the link above and Like — give her some support, pretty please. After all, as above, her friends are jerks):
1. Never say “If there’s anything I can to help…” and leave it open-ended.
2. Don’t make empty promises.
3. Don’t run for the hills.
4. Don’t disappear.
5. Don’t dwell on the negative.
6. It isn’t all about you.
As my husband’s caregiver when he went through the horrifying process of diagnosis with lymphoma, followed by chemo, I learned a ton about friendship and love. The diagnosis rocked us to the core, exploded the life we thought we had and put us on a totally unexpected path, one we never, ever would have imagined ourselves on. He is the healthiest, strongest, fittest person around (ok, except maybe for other guys on his cycling team, Iron Data Thirsty Bear). WTF, right? It took some getting used to. It took some adaptation. But we figured it out.
And here’s the deal: our friends were AWESOME through the whole process. Sure, not everyone knew what to do, and once I got the hang of it, it got a lot easier.
Cancer is code for death. That freaks most people out. So they may want to help but they also don’t quite know what to do, how to react, how to be of service. They need structured guidance.
It really helps to be specific about what you want. It helps even more to have someone do that for you. Someone like me, obvy, but that’s a whole other topic. I can’t imagine how anyone gets through a serious illness, let alone cancer, without a clear-eyed advocate on the sidelines. But even I had moments of making it about me.
2. Set Up and Manage a Meal Calendar. Bringing food is an essential expression of caring, something most people are capable of doing. But a person who is undergoing chemo shouldn’t have to coordinate the comings and goings. There are plenty of websites that make it easy, so Google it and go. Not only does this take pressure off the caregiver to shop and cook and fill the fridge, but it’s just a really great thing for the patient to look forward to, plenty of variety to keep things a lot more interesting than they might otherwise be.
3. Keep Your Stories to a Minimum. It’s human nature, as a way of empathizing, to tell your stories of cancer to the patient, to talk about all of your brushes with death, all of your hospitalizations and illnesses. But check that impulse and keep your stories to a minimum. Talk about other subjects, not just illness, and try to keep the focus on entertaining your sick friend, making him or her laugh or light up about something, a shared experience, a future plan. Try not to talk excessively about yourself. After all, right now you’re not the one with no hair, with the sallow face and sunken eyes or the chemo hiccups. Ask questions. Listen.
4. Pick Up the Phone. Some people told us after the treatment, when Joe was up and back to his usual self, that they hesitated to phone while he was sick, having heard about his illness through mutual friends, because they didn’t want to invade privacy or presume. Just pick up the phone. It means the world to know that people are in your corner, regardless of how they heard you were sick. Those expressions of caring go a long way to buoy a person’s spirits.
5. Visit but Not Forever. People who are sick are just that: sick. Their stamina is less than yours. Plan a visit that lasts 60 minutes, for example, and then LEAVE. Don’t hang around forever. That becomes exhausting. Really, it’s better to have two shorter visits than one really long one. Come back again!
6. Do Your Crying At Home. This is key, something Danielle is talking about under her #5, Don’t Dwell on the Negative. Cancer is super-scary and super-sad, but please try to come over with a happy face on, having cried your eyes out at home. It is really hard for the patient to have to comfort others over his or her current state. Please bring joy with you when you come. There’s enough darkness and fear as it is.
It’s so crazy for me to think that it really was two whole years ago. Behind me, in our home office, my husband is doing his interminable exercises, part of his PT for a cycling accident last March when a car turned in front of him, leaving Joe with a totalled bike, 4 broken ribs, a broken scapula, a broken clavicle and a punctured lung. He’s gearing up to start racing again in a few weeks. It’s odd to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that he was really and truly so sick, so wan in color, nauseous, barely moving, always with a hat on to cover his cold bald head.
But not totally miserable. Because he had friends around (and family, naturally, I’m not leaving you out). Good friends who found ways to show up at a time when it was most essential. Friends who were awesome.
So please, if your friend has cancer, don’t be a jerk. It’s so easy to be awesome and it makes all the difference in the world.