28 Ways to Show You Care

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cancer support show you careYour friend, family member, or coworker has cancer, so now it’s time to put yourself aside and focus on her. You’re up to bat!

Cancer either makes relationships grow or fall apart, and if you can’t connect, you’re out of the game. If you’re scared too, and don’t know how to help or what to say, I’ve got ya covered. For the sake of time and clarity, I will refer to your loved one as a female, but most of these tips apply to both sexes, so read on regardless:

  1. It’s not about you. No amount of heartache, broken bones, drama, or health issues of your own matter anymore. No matter at what stage your friend’s cancer is, assume that in her mind, nothing else is as scary.
  2. No one else’s cancer matters but hers. Resist the temptation to report your grandma’s, uncle’s, and best friend’s mom’s cancer story. This only reinforces fear.
  3. Don’t say nothing or not call just because you don’t know what to say. The worst thing you can do is send a card with nothing in it, or not call just to ask how it’s going. If you know the situation is bad and you’re scared too, you can’t let that show. She’s got enough to deal with already, with all her own fear, and she shouldn’t have to process yours as well. Remember, you’re her cheerleader, her rock, her coach, not her feeble friend. You believe with all your soul that no matter what her prognosis, she’s in great hands, and she will come out of this happily and healthfully.
  4. Bring up cancer without bringing up cancer. If you talk to your friend daily, you don’t want cancer to be the main focus, but you don’t want to ignore it either. Everyone copes differently, and some people are going to need encouragement to get it all out, but you don’t want to be obvious.
  5. Cancer is not a bad word! Avoid using the phrase “The Big C,” as this makes cancer sound big, bad and ugly—which it most certainly is, but it’s not unbeatable. You don’t want to add weight to the anchor of fear that the word cancer has. Be mindful of how you use the word, and try to observe your own emotions when you say it. Refer to it as a medical diagnosis, not a death sentence. Be matter of fact about it, not fear based.
  6.  Help her vent. Everyone copes differently, and you’ll find that your friend might handle cancer differently than you thought. Follow her lead! If she cries all the time, be her shoulder, but if she acts like nothing’s wrong, that’s a red flag. Your friend may be pushing down fear. Help her gently face it by asking questions, easy ones at first. Read more about different cancer coping styles in my blog, The Blessings and Bother of Cancer Support.
  7. Chemo is not poison! Even if that’s yours or your friend’s belief, it just so happens to be saving her life, so cut that out of your vocabulary. Substitute other descriptives such as toxic chemicals with words like medicinedrugs, and cures, which all reflect a more positive perspective.
  8. Mutilate the myths! Some old wives tales still survive, and even though they’ve been debunked, some dusty stories still have some patients worried. For example, some believe that surgery or needle biopsies make cancer spread. If your friend just had surgery to remove a tumor or lymph node, resist reminding her of these myths.
  9. Piggyback on the placebo effect. Regardless of whether any treatment is successful, there’s much to be said about self-fulfilling prophecy, and statistics show that a patient’s belief that a pill or treatment is going to work really does improve results. Reinforce it: your friend’s treatment is working just as it was designed.
  10. Don’t just sign and send! Although your handpicked card may have the perfect verbiage to make your friend laugh or say, “Awwwwwe,” it’s not enough! Your words in your handwriting show true heart. Be yourself. Don’t get some clichéd poem or line off the net. If you’re a jokester, write something funny. If you’re compassionate or silly, write something in character. Compliment her on whatever. And always, unless you live in Timbuktu, hand-deliver the card.
  11. Listen, no matter how many times she repeats herself, she’s processing a lot of emotion and information, so sit there and pretend it’s the first time you’ve ever heard it. This is where your precious therapeutic communication skills come in. You are not there to fix her problems. You are there to ask questions and hold the emotional space for her.
  12. Whoopee cushion galore! Make her laugh! After she vents and gets all the yucky stuff out, you gotta replace that spent energy with positive thoughts and feelings.  Read more in my blog post, The Power of Laughter.
  13. Focus on the positive. If your friend’s coping style is hysteria, set your conversational compass on the positive: “I noticed your blood counts are going up a little. That’s great!” or “It looks like you have more energy today. Are you feeling better?” Even if she continues in her habitual negative direction, over time, she may trim her course toward the true north of hope.
  14. You’re not a hero; you’re just doing your job. As a nurse, I’ve seen some friends crowd in with a “To the Rescue” attitude when they accompany their friend to treatment. Remember that you are not saving anyone. You are not being this loving to get some kind of reward or title. You are supporting this person in a selfless way, regardless of whether you get any acknowledgment.
  15. Starbucks anyone? Whether it’s coffee or tea, or just the yummy pastries you’re after, taking your friend to Starbucks may help create the feeling of normalcy in her life. If her treatment is pretty heavy, she may be too tired or sick to work or “go out” most of the time. If you offer that she get dressed and accompany you for a quick coffee break (or bring it to her if she doesn’t feel well enough to go), she’ll feel loved, as if she weren’t a “patient” for a little bit. You’ll show that you just want her company, and you miss how it used to be.
  16. Date Night. If you know your friend’s treatment schedule, plan a date when she can expect to have the fewest side effects. Whether it’s a girls night out, or a dinner for two, it’s important your friend gets to dress up and feel sexy and youthful every once in a while. This can be a healthy distraction.
  17. Cancer-Free Days. On days when your friend is feeling great, she may want to avoid the topic all together, and that’s OK. I can remember on my mom’s good days, when I’d bring up the topic, she’d say, “Oh, today I don’t have cancer.” Be sensitive to these times, as it feels good to have a break, when your entire life doesn’t revolve around cancer. This would be a good time to talk about what’s been going on in your life, and distract her with things you used to talk about before her diagnosis.
  18. What’s up, doc? Once someone is diagnosed, her calendar fills up with doctor and lab appointments and scans, and then of course the chemo and radiation appointments. This can be daunting, and often lonely if her spouse can’t accompany her to every one. Offer to join her. “What if I work full time?” you might ask. Well, this is when you sacrifice a day of work, get a babysitter if you have to, and go pick her up from her house (yes even if it’s across town and in the opposite direction of the cancer center) and take her to her appointment. This will be a great opportunity for you to learn what’s really going on with her treatment.
  19. Bring food! Folks, you don’t have to Wolfgang Puck your way through an eight-course meal to make her happy. Something simple and healthy is enough to show that you understand that treatment leaves her too tired to cook. Just make sure you’re aware about the dietary restrictions with certain chemos. Read my blog, Food (or lack thereof) and Cancer to learn more.
  20. Speak the lingo! You’ll notice your friend has earned her degree in medical terminology seemingly overnight, and if you want to follow the thread, you better pick it up. Understanding her diagnosis, prognosis, chemo regimen, lab results, and side effects will really show you have an interest in her health. If the diagnosis is fairly new, there’s a steep learning curve, and having two sets of ears at the appointments helps to not miss anything. A lot of my patients have admitted that they haven’t heard a word the doctor was saying in their follow up because they were still in shock that all this was really happening. That said, don’t be so much of an expert that you try to educate her, give her advice, or assert your opinion, unless she asks for it. Never answer for your friend with a doctor or nurse. Your job is to be a fly on the wall and be supportive.
  21. Get physical! Nothing shows love more than touch. Hold her hand during treatment, give more hugs than usual, and most importantly, offer massages! If you suck at back rubs or have a foot phobia, take her to go get a professional massage and then you both get treated!
  22. Buzz it, baby! The majority of female patients I’ve cared for have reported that even if their other side effects were horrible, such as painful mouth sores and vomiting for two days straight, they admitted that shaving their heads was hands down the most traumatic experience in their entire treatment. So much of a woman’s identity is in her hair. Even women like my mom, who swore she didn’t care about losing her hair, eventually break down when it starts falling out in patches with a gentle stroke of the finger. Shaving it at the first sign of losing it will prevent a prolonged heartache. Support her by going with her. (Don’t forget to donate any hair that’s at least 10 inches and hasn’t been bleached!)
  23. Wigs aren’t just for costumes! Some women prefer beautiful scarves and hats, and still look gorgeous in them, but others prefer wigs. My mom always said that scarves made her feel more like a patient, whereas her wig looked so real she felt normal when she went out. People who didn’t know she had cancer would compliment her on her sexy new haircut. Joining your friend to pick out a wig can be fun. Make it a playful experience and try on wigs with her, making sure to try the crazy ones too. Wigs can be very expensive depending on the length and whether the hair is real, but having more than one can be great to mix and match with different outfits, and she’ll get to feel like someone else for a day. Remember some insurances will cover the cost of one wig; it’s called a scalp prosthesis.
  24. Taxi, taxi! Running her errands on occasion shows you understand how she often doesn’t have the energy to run her own life. Don’t just offer and hope she’ll decline. Instead ask, “When can I pick up the  kids? What groceries do you need right now? Can I drop something off at the post office?” Some women are used to being superwoman and won’t feel comfortable delegating their To-Do’s to you or anyone else. But be persistent; healing should be her priority, not errands.
  25. Donate some elbow grease. When you’re in the middle of a barf-a-thon, the work-a-day stuff like vacuuming the house, doing laundry, or cleaning up after kids is an impossible task. Like my mom always said, every mother’s favorite words are “How can I help?” This is true for anyone going through cancer treatment.
  26. Everybody loves goody-bags. Soft blankets, pillows, ginger candies for nausea, relaxing music, a journal, hats, scarves, and gloves or hand warmers for peripheral neuropathy are always a nice surprise. Gifts don’t have to be expensive, but these items become sacred during treatment.
  27. Hold her hair—or wig! Remind you of college? Tossing cookies is no longer a thing of the past, and emotional support is important now more than ever. The simple act of being there, or putting a cool washcloth on her forehead will mean the world to her. You don’t want to be the friend who just shows up when things are pretty. You want to be there through the nitty gritty. If you’re squeamish, bring gloves or plug your nose. Chemo comes with a variety of lovely side effects, ranging from vomiting and explosive diarrhea, to constipation and more.
  28. Cards are not just for special occasions! Bring a card almost every time you see your friend (of course I’m going to recommend a LumpyCard here!). Try to abstain from sympathy cards, as you don’t want to feel sorry for her. You want to encourage her, make her laugh. What you write in your card she will read long after you’re gone, and she will set it out to remind her of your love, and lift her up when she needs it most. Click on the image below to view cards.

funny profane cancer greeting card

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