How to Respond to a Friend's Cancer Diagnosis
“Do you know Mary?” A friend asks.
“Yes.” I respond.
“Did you know that Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer?”
“I can’t believe it!” I exclaim.
“Mary just found out last week. She didn’t even have a family history of breast cancer. As you can imagine, she is just devastated.”
This conversation is happening all over the country as almost 300,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer annually (ACS, 2016).
What’s next? You are friends with Mary. So, how do you support her through a cancer diagnosis? How can you help with her immediate needs during treatment, yet still give her the space and privacy she may also want?
Depending on your level of friendship with Mary, the amount of help may differ. There are potentially three levels: If you are in Mary’s core group of friends, and you talk daily or weekly about personal issues, then you are, what I describe as, a Level 1. A Level 2 friend is at birthday parties and occasional outings, and possibly a co-worker. A Level 3 friend may be a friend of a friend, or an office acquaintance.
If you are Level 1, then I recommend you call Mary and her family and offer your assistance. Be there for Mary. Offer to listen without judgement or the need to step in and solve problems. At the early stage of diagnosis, Mary may need to talk about all the things she is thinking and feeling. She may not initially want to inflict the pain of the diagnosis and treatment on her family. She may find it easier to share details with you, a more neutral person. So, offer to go out for a cup of coffee or take a walk. After the initial call, follow up with weekly cards and/or emails. This allows Mary to engage with you on her schedule and when it is convenient for her. Include the line, “No response is required, I just wanted to let you know that I am thinking about you.” This is very helpful when Mary is sick or depressed, and not feeling up to responding. As a cancer survivor myself, I’ve appreciated these friends for encouraging me along the way when the relationship was hopelessly one sided.
If you are a level 2 friend, I would suggest cards and emails as a first response to Mary’s news. Cancer treatment usually lasts between 12-24 months, so getting cards every week can be up-lifting. Beyond the written words, offer practical help. Instead of asking, “What do you need?”, tell Mary you are bringing a meal over and leaving it on her porch. Often cancer patients and their families do not know what to ask for. You can make a difference by taking action in a non-invasive way. Do you have kids at the same school? Offer to pick up an extra day in the car pool. If you are a coworker of Mary, you may have the option of pooling or gifting sick days. I had a friend that made me a stack of DVD movies for those times when I did not feel like going out and I needed the mental escape of mindless entertainment. I had two friends that sent me cards every week for a year. I looked forward to their words of encouragement.
Perhaps you are a level 3 friend. You are a wife of Mary’s co-worker; you do not know her very well, but still want to help in some way. Consider a donation to the American Cancer Society in Mary’s name. There are many organized runs and bike rides that raise money for breast cancer research. Take a picture of yourself training and send it to her. Let Mary know her diagnosis helped motivate you to take action and raise money. You can also volunteer at a Breast Cancer function or attend a fundraiser. Cancer organizations are always looking for financial contributions or volunteers.
How can you help? Acknowledge that cancer is a devastating diagnosis for Mary and her family. Assess your level of friendship and take action. Your care, concern, and support will make a difference through a difficult time.
Stephanie Hansen is a Foodie, Friend, Entrepreneur and Cancer Survivor. Check out her great work here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephaniesdish