LIFE – Breast friends forever

We’ve been friends since we were 8 years old. We celebrated our birthdays and took our sons to the zoo for elephant rides to give ourselves a bit of time-out. I watched her battle depression when her husband died, and just as the cloud seemed to lift, she found a lump in her breast a few months ago. The diagnosis – metaplastic sarcomatoid carcinoma (combination of metaplastic carcinoma and spindle cell carcinoma) – a particularly aggressive cancer that went from Stage 1 to Stage 3 in four months.

The lump has been removed but the cancer has not been eradicated, and while her doctors say that neither chemo nor radiation will do much good, they are still starting her on radiation in a week’s time.

Her two older children, sisters and friends are too distraught to think straight. She wants to go ahead with a party she’s planned, but they insist she should “rest”. It annoys her no end. She is already experiencing fatigue but with some planning, and the food and cleaning taken care of by a helper and her sisters, she thinks the party should go on because it might be her last.

She says she is not afraid to die. What she fears is pain and the high cost of treatment.

How do we show we care without suffocating the person? How can we help at a time like this?  Despite many friends and acquaintances being struck by various ailments from the dreaded cancer to rheumatoid arthritis, I am still a klutz at showing support. I have kicked myself black-and-blue for being insensitive eg for sounding breezy as if they will surely recover. But at the time, I thought being positive was the right attitude. Now, I’m not so sure.

At the other extreme, I just listen with no idea what to say. It might appear I don’t care when I am actually afraid I might cry.

So, I checked http://www.cancer.net/ and picked up pointers that I’m comfortable with. My own take –

  • One of the first things to hold back on is sharing well-meaning advice. It seems everyone knows some therapy or healer or fantastic supplement we can’t wait to foist on our sick friend. The intention is good, but might be unwelcome. You can mention it but take the cue from your friend. No interest? Move on.
  • Also, ring and enquire after their health, chat about general things and let them know you are thinking of them, but don’t insist on visiting if your friend doesn’t sound keen to see you. And don’t be offended.
  • Offer to run errands and rally friends around to share chores if your friend needs help. Practical assistance is more useful than just talking.

More useful advice:

Avoid saying

  • I know just how you feel.
  • You need to talk.
  • I know just what you should do.
  • I feel helpless.
  • I don’t know how you manage.
  • I’m sure you’ll be fine.
  • Don’t worry.
  • How much time do the doctors give you?
  • How long do you have?
  • Let me know what I can do. (Instead, offer specific ways you can help or other things you can provide if they need it.)

Show support with something simple like cooking and bringing over a meal for your friend (after checking dietary preferences) or accompanying him/her on a walk. It’s really the little things that make a difference.

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