Your coworker and friend was recently diagnosed with cancer, and you want to do something to show you care. Here, several cancer survivors offer insight into the acts of kindness your friend may most appreciate.
Just Be There
“When I was first diagnosed, the thing that my friends did that was most helpful was to hold me while I cried,” says Kay Wells, who developed breast cancer three years ago. “If you want to help a friend diagnosed with cancer, just be there. Sit there. Don’t offer platitudes. Just hold your friend’s hand and let them talk when they need to. They need to talk about what's happened.” According to Wells, “Friends can’t make the fact that you have cancer go away. They can’t make it all better. They can, however, help you feel safer. When you’re scared, it’s important to know that someone is there.”
What to Say
It’s also important to know you can speak candidly about your illness, says Dr. Robin Stone, a seven-year survivor of ovarian cancer. “I had friends who were able to tolerate my discussion about my illness and I appreciated the opportunity to speak frankly and in some detail about the disease and its complexity. The last thing you want from people is some syrupy sweet comment like 'Everything will be fine.’”
Anita Carton, an 11-year survivor of ovarian cancer, appreciated the support her friends provided but cautioned against offering platitudes or false assurances. “Don’t say ‘Everything will be okay.’ You can’t guarantee that,” she says. “And don’t say ‘I know what you’re going through’ unless you really do. If you haven’t had cancer yourself, it would be better to say ‘I know you’re having a difficult time.’”
Another tip: When you’re visiting, don’t feel compelled to make your friend’s illness the primary topic of conversation.
“Friends helped [me] by talking about subjects other than cancer,” says Claudia Chatman, a 12-year breast cancer survivor. “We talked about old times, about travel plans we had coming up. It helped to focus on things other than my illness.”
“Don’t hesitate to talk about office happenings and gossip,” urged Carton. “It provides a great distraction from one’s own illness. And frankly, one of the best defenses you have when you’re ill is distraction.”
Instead of Calling, Write
If your friend is in the hospital or at home recovering from surgery, it’s important to write, says Lynda Ford, a 10-year survivor of breast cancer. “While the person with cancer is often too tired to talk on the telephone, cards, letters and e-mails are a great way to stay connected, and often are reread with a warm smile.”
“One of the best things people can do is send cards,” echoes Carton. “When I was in the hospital, the one thing I loved and encouraged people to do was send cards. I called them ‘silent messengers.’ What people don’t realize is that phone calls can be intrusive when you’re in the hospital. There may be a procedure going on. You may be taking a nap. Plus, talking on the telephone takes more energy than people realize. Cards, on the other hand, are perfect. You don’t have to exert energy to react to them. You can read them when it’s most convenient and when you’re rested.”
What About Visitors?
Carton recommends that coworkers rotate their visits to the hospital. “The need to know and be assured about how your coworker is feeling has to be weighed against the patient’s need to rest,” she says. “The coworker who’s ill may not have the energy to tell her story to everyone who calls or visits. I remember when I was in the hospital, I loved the attention from everyone, but I had to minimize the energy I gave back.”
Offer Practical Help
Once your friend is home recuperating, offering practical help can often be the kindest thing you can do, according to Stone. “Cook a meal or some hot soup and bring it over. Offer to do the marketing or to drive your friend to a doctor’s appointment,” she suggests. “Offering practical help is invaluable, especially if your friend is single or doesn’t have family members nearby to help out.”
Following radiation treatments for a recent recurrence of her breast cancer, Chatman says she was often too tired to cook for herself or even to walk from the kitchen table to the refrigerator. “It was really helpful when friends came over to cook a meal or help with household chores,” she remembers. “I also appreciated when friends made calls to schedule my doctors’ appointments or offered to take me to my appointments.”
Ford recommends being proactive when you want to help. “Don’t ask, ‘What can I do?’ or ‘How can I help?’ Just do something,” she urges. “One night following my mastectomy, two friends just brought over dinner — pasta, salad and dessert. They didn’t ask if I needed it. They just did it. It was a meal that could be used immediately or the next day.”
Make a Date
Don’t hesitate to invite your friend on an outing either. “If the person feels well enough to get out of the house, ask if they’d like to join you and some other friends from work for lunch,” suggests Carton. “Even if the person with cancer doesn’t have much of an appetite that day, sitting with everyone, talking and laughing, and getting back to a more normal environment can be very therapeutic.”
Gift certificates for little luxuries can also be therapeutic, says Ford. “Depending on the person, you can give gift certificates for a massage, dinner out, a hair appointment or something similar,” she recommends. “Then the person with cancer can use the certificate when they’re having a good day.”
Another luxury of sorts might be an afternoon of ‘R&R’ for an ill friend who has small children. “If there are small — or even not-so-small — ones at home, offer to take them out for the day,” suggests Ford. “It will give the person with cancer some quiet time and the kids can have a fun day too.”
More Acts of Kindness
- Consider sending balloon bouquets rather than flowers. “Some people may be allergic to flowers,” notes Carton. “Besides, balloons are great. They can really cheer up a hospital room or bedroom.”
- Help with the basics. “If your friend is home and you’ll be in the vicinity, call and see if you can pick anything up,” suggests Ford. “A half-gallon of milk or loaf of bread is no big deal — until you run out!”
- Don’t visit your friend if you’re ill or feel as if you’re coming down with something. “Whether your friend is in the hospital or convalescing at home, if you have the slightest cough or cold, stay away,” reminds Carton. “A cancer patient’s immune system is already compromised, particularly if they’re on chemo. Even if you planned to visit on a particular day, call and let your friend know you think it’s best to postpone your visit because you’re not feeling well. The cancer patient will appreciate the call.”
- Donate your unused leave time. If your friend has used up all of his or her paid leave due to illness, consider donating some of yours. According to Ford, who heads her own HR consulting firm, “Some companies have ‘catastrophic’ leave banks, where employees can donate unused vacation time for colleagues who have catastrophic leave needs.”
- If you want to make a gesture of support consider growing, cutting and donating your hair to make free, real-hair wigs for people with cancer.