On Friday, February 3, 2012, I waited anxiously all day for “the call” from my doctor to give me the results of the biopsy I had had on Wednesday. I was hoping to hear something during the day on Friday, but dreading it at the same time. When “the call” finally came, I had already left school and was in my car, driving toward my parents’ home to meet them and Oscar for dinner. I pulled over to take the call, and I held it together as my doctor gave me the results. I hung up and immediately called my husband to plan a place to meet him before showing up at my parents’ home – and rocking their world with this news. The next call I made was to my friend April. The moment she answered, I attempted to calmly deliver the news that I had just been diagnosed with what the doctor thought at the time was a small, non-invasive breast cancer tumor. I think she still flinches a little every time I call her in the middle of the day.
Learning that I had cancer was just as difficult for my family and friends – probably more – than it was for me. In the following four years of surgery, treatment, a second cancer, more surgery, and more treatment, April and many, many other friends helped to bare our burdens and made this journey less lonely and more encouraging than we could have ever thought possible.
Knowing how to help someone with cancer or a chronic disease is especially difficult when we ourselves don’t know what we need. My friends were pretty intuitive I guess, because they figured out some creative ways to be a blessing to me. All the ideas I’ve included here are what my friends did for me and our family.
Let her know that she is being prayed for.
You can do this by sending cards, emails, and Facebook messages. Phone calls are nice at times, but phone calls require more time and energy that your friend may have. For months, I received at least one card in the mail every day. My friend Rhonda told me that she bought a whole stack of encouraging cards when she first learned I had cancer, and she sent me one at least every two weeks. My sweet co-workers in my special education class emailed me regular updates on our kids’ funny sayings and crazy antics. I looked forward to these and the laughs they gave me in the midst of some not so funny days.
Bring her some food – if she won’t eat it, her family will.
When I was taking chemo, I had no appetite at all, but my family still did! April traveled from her home in Virginia to care for us when I was recovering from surgery. She fixed meals, made lunches for my kids, and prepared the “only white foods!” that I would eat. My pastor’s wife Rachel and her mother make a delicious homemade chicken noodle soup – even the noodles were homemade!! This soup was life-giving! When my friend Stephanie learned that I was struggling with finding liquids that I could tolerate because of the metallic taste in my mouth, she came to my school and delivered an entire grocery bag full of several varieties of drinks – Gatorade, flavored waters, teas, juices, etc…. Thanks to her, I discovered Propel Water – the only drink that didn’t make me nauseous. Several sweet friends gave me gifts of chocolate. Now, if you know me, you know how much I love chocolate, but I hated chocolate when I was taking chemotherapy. So sad!! I was worried that I would never get my taste for chocolate, but I am happy to report that we have repaired our relationship:)
Clean her house.
I’m not what I would classify as a “clean freak” although my children have made this ugly accusation. I think I’m pretty normal about my need for my space to be clean and tidy. Sitting in the recliner and watching the dirty dishes and laundry pile up because I was too weak to tackle it was discouraging. However, I have the most perfect next-door neighbor, Lindsey, who came over every two weeks for months and cleaned my house from top to bottom. She never asked if I wanted her to do that. She just announced that she was coming and what she would be doing. I’m grateful for that because if she would have asked, I would have felt presumptuous for agreeing, even knowing how much I needed the help. In December of 2014, she hung Christmas lights, draped greenery, and turned my house into a Winter Wonderland just in time for our kids to come home to a festive looking home.
Granted, those visits need to be short and well-timed, but it gets lonely recovering from surgery, and chemo makes you just feel yucky and almost afraid to leave the house. After too many weeks of isolation, depression can set in. Some of my friends came for just a few minutes to just say hello, and some stayed longer to watch Netflix. Some brought meals and stayed to eat with us. I loved when we could have “normal” conversation about topics that didn’t include cancer. My niece Jennifer works from home so she brought her computer and stayed with me on days when my husband had to travel out of town. She set me and the rest of the family up with pink “Fight” t-shirts, protein powder, and vitamins – lots and lots of vitamins:) My parents came to just sit and “be there” with me, and of course they fed me, or at least tried to.
Drive her to appointments.
Driving is tough when you’re weak and sick.
Be her buddy at chemo treatments.
Intravenous infusions in the cancer center can last anywhere from 4-7 hours. Most of the time, Oscar went with me. He would set up his computer beside my recliner and work from an uncomfortable chair while I napped in a recliner. On the days that he could not go with me, I had several other friends and family who literally vied for the opportunity to accompany me! I must be a lot of fun when I’m unconscious! We would talk and visit for a little while until the pre-meds kicked in and I went into a vegetative state. Even though I wasn’t conscious during these visits, I felt safe and cared for knowing that a dear friend was sitting right beside me, ready to walk me to the restroom, get me another pillow, or hassle me to “take another sip.”
Help her research her options.
n I first learned that I had cancer, I called my sister-in-law Joy and asked for her expertise. She is a nurse practitioner and was able to break down the medical terminology into a language that I could understand. I also asked her to do some research for me because I didn’t want to be overwhelmed or distressed by what I might find on the internet. Dr. Google can be helpful at times, but when you starting googling cancer, it can take you down – fast! Your friend may need assistance with researching treatment options, but wait to be asked for this service.
Support her decisions about her treatment.
Fighting cancer takes many forms and forces many difficult decisions with limited time to contemplate – lumpectomy, single mastectomy, double mastectomy, chemotherapy, natural therapy, radiation, reconstruction/no reconstruction, etc…. She will struggle to make these decisions – don’t make it harder for her by causing your friend to feel guilty or to second-guess a choice that you don’t think you would make. It’s her fight, and her treatment choices should be made only by her and her family. Be her filter. Well meaning, kind people will give her unsolicited advice about diet, vitamins, treatment options, life-style changes, etc…. Encourage her friends to support her decisions and keep controversial opinions to themselves. Guilt causes stress. Stress is bad.
Cover for her at work.
If she is able to work during her treatments, she will not be able to handle the same work load and responsibilities that she usually does. My coworkers lightened my work load, took some of my duties, gave me safe places to hide from students when I was upset or tired, and sent me home early when they could see that I was overwhelmed physically.
Send thoughtful gifts.
Soft pajamas, button-up shirts, fluffy socks, lotions, flowers, fruit baskets, hats and scarves (really great when you lose your hair!), essential oils , books – encouraging, or just for fun. Two of my favorites were Off Script, What to do when God Rewrites Your Life by Cary Schmidt and Loving God with All Your Mind by Elizabeth George.
Take her out for lunch.
She needs to get out of the house. At one point, I had to take a leave of absence from school for several months. Because I was usually on pain meds, it was difficult to focus on reading books, so Netflix was my friend. However, after binge-watching several seasons of Downton Abbey, Larkrise to Candleford and other other BBC series I came across, I grew desperate for some time out of the house. However, driving myself was not an option, and eating lunch out by yourself is just….sad. Thankfully, I had several friends who picked me up and took me out. One day I was so starved for companionship, that my friend Dana and I spent four hours sitting in Olive Garden! Thirty minutes eating, and three and a half hours talking!
Share your experience.
If you have been through the same treatments and/or surgeries that she is facing,
she wants to hear about your choices, doctors, and advice. My friend and fellow teacher shared with me the details of her own experience with breast cancer. She knew better than anyone else what I was facing, and she knew the roller coaster of emotions that I was riding. She immediately ordered two specialty tank tops which she knew I would need after surgery. I didn’t know until after surgery how right she was. She saved me a great deal of inconvenience and frustration. When she learned that I was disappointed that I could not have a pedicure while I was taking chemo because of the risk of infection at a nail salon, Barbara showed up at my home with all brand new supplies. She kneeled in front of me, washed my feet, massaged my legs, and painted my toe nails. I was humbled by her act of love and kindness to me.
Celebrate her victories.
Anniversaries are significant! Every month past chemo treatment is important, and every year past a cancer diagnosis is something to celebrate. My friends treated me to cake, parties, coffee, and cards to mark the days that they knew were meaningful to me. Celebrating those victories with friends who had been cheering me along all the way made those days super special and reminded me of God’s faithfulness throughout every moment of a difficult journey.