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October 04, 2006

Offering Support to Those With Cancer

Julieorfirer72x722_2 Julie - In one of the comments to this blog Lorraine asked how she can support her friend with breast cancer and wondered about the things that felt most supportive. 

Lorraine also asked about the “wrong” things that people say.  I’ll address that one first.  My own favorite things for people to say are the simplest.  I most appreciate the people who say, “How are you?” and are willing to stick around for the 30 seconds it takes for me to give the long version.  I appreciate the “I’m thinking (or praying or sending good energies) about you.”  I was, gratefully, spared some of the more thoughtless comments that went to my husband.  The hushed, “Did they catch it early enough?” from people we don’t know all that well.  The “She’s not doing conventional treatments, IS SHE????”  Although I did have an acquaintance reverently ask me at an art opening after treatment, “Do you think that this changed your perspective on how you live your life?”  I was thinking, as thank goodness her nine-year-old daughter vied for her attention, “Does the fact that I’ve had cancer make all of my private life everyone else’s business?”  But by that time even, “How are you?” had gotten old and both my husband and I were responding, “Fine!” just to not have the conversation again.

I stayed pretty immune to taking offense by people.  I knew that when the tire guy said, “Attitude is what makes the difference” he didn’t really mean that the only people who died had bad attitudes.  I knew that everyone who said anything was doing their best, within their own abilities and fears, to say the right thing.  I’ve certainly not known what to say to people in the past and, even now.  I met up with an old acquaintance on a recent boat trip sponsored by the oncology department.  I barely knew what to say when I found out he was there as a brain cancer patient.  But, be forewarned!  Anyone can and will take offense at just about anything.  I’ve read stories of women dropping friends and family by the wayside for the uttering of a struggling comment from someone who was just trying to say something.  What I might find amusing might kick someone to the core.  It’s sort of a no win situation.  That’s why I figure, stick with, “How are you?” and just listen to the answer.

So here are the things that felt supportive:  First, I want to be treated like a normal human being and friend.  Yes, I still want to listen to your problems.  I am still me, I’m just going through a hard time.  I loved the gifts of books, both serious and funny.  I loved the gifts of scarves and hats and earrings.  I loved the cards.  I loved the flowers.  I appreciated the, “Is there anything I can do?” especially when they were followed by, “I’ll be at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s tomorrow, can I do your shopping?”  And the bags of groceries that showed up on our table even without asking were lovely gifts!  Food, in fact, was always appreciated.  The meals that our friend Julie provided on the evenings of both of my surgeries – well, what can beat coming home from a stressful day like that and finding a fabulous meal with enough to provide leftovers for days?  My sister came across the country for both of my surgeries.  My other sister put on a lovely birthday celebration at her house by the ocean and had family photographs taken of all the girls.  A friend did my laundry for weeks and even came and cleaned my bathroom when I couldn’t even dream of leaning over the tub after my first surgery. 

I’d say don’t ever be afraid to offer to help and to follow it up.  It’s hard for people to ask for help.  Sometimes we really want it but feel embarrassed.  Just show up with some soup and a loaf of bread.  Call from the grocery store.  Drop by after work and leave flowers on the doorstep with a card.  Anything that shows that you know this is hard and you lend your support in some way or another is good.  Very good.

October 4, 2006 in Julie | Permalink


Thank you, Julie.

You article helped me to write a letter to my friend who is suffering from Leukemia.

Posted by: Olga | Sep 5, 2009 2:09:24 AM

Hi Julie and all the other ladies that have written on this site,

I've read through the posts, and thank you. I just googled words of support, because I'm trying to write my Nana a simple Valentine's day card. She is in a home dealing with the after-effects of chemotherapy and radiation from breast cancer... and I was worried about saying the wrong thing. I'm 6 hours away at school, so I don't get to see her much. Thank you, you ladies are wonderful and in my prayers.

Posted by: Liz | Feb 13, 2007 12:42:41 AM

Hi Julie,
I'm a women's health nurse practitioner and a fairly new breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in April and 4 weeks from finishing radiation. I can't emphasize enough what it means, emotionally and physically, for those who want to support you to ask what they can DO for you. I think because I worked through my chemo and the way I LOOKED, most people around me thought that this was not much of an ordeal and that I felt good(I had hair below my waist and found a natural hair wig that fooled everybody into thinking I just cut and dyed my hair.)I didn't many offers of assistance. From now on, not only will I offer, and carry through with help, but remind others around someone in need to make a sincere offer and continue to do so as long as the person's need is there.

Posted by: Jennie | Oct 16, 2006 3:23:50 PM

Hi Julie,
This is the first time I have seen your site too. As a survivor of breast cancer and a nurse, I understand where you are coming from! I was most struck by the "system" when I was sent 400km to the city for radiotherapy that is not available in my home town. As a nurse I had sent many patients to the city before, but being the patient and actually moving there for 7 weeks without my family.........that is a very isolating prospect: just when you need your family with you!
I didn't really enjoy being on the other end of the nurse-patient relationship. Some doctors and nurses think you know what's happening and don't explain anything, while others forget that you have some knowlege and overexplain!
Anyway treatment is finished now and my surgeon believes I have a good progmosis, so I'm back at home and back at work. Good luck to you, and keep up the bloggs. I will be thinking of you....
God bless you,

Posted by: Sharyn | Oct 12, 2006 3:04:13 AM

Hugs Julie!
Thank you for reminding me that it's okay to be a friend as well as a nurse. I have a colleague whom I consider my friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer, and who needs the soup and bread as much as the hugs, listening to and help swimming through the overwhelming amount of information on the web. I'm amazed at how much strength I get from her! You remind me of her and I'm sending good vibes your way.

Posted by: Abby | Oct 10, 2006 9:51:16 PM

Hi Julie,

This is the first time I found your site. I am a hospice nurse and a survivor of Adenocarcinoma of the utereus and finding a lymphoma in the intestine. A shock after being so healthy! It certainly helps to understand my patients even more then before.

I could so relate to your letters and had so many of the same experiences and feelings. Thank you for your candid thoughts, I wish you the best.


Posted by: Dorothy | Oct 6, 2006 4:07:56 PM

Hi Julie,

Just read thru your more recent posts, and would love to reach out and give you a hug...I am a homecare nurse and a breast cancer surviver...I have lots of hair! *LOL* I have even had it cut...I love my eye lashes and shaving my legs again...it has been nearly two years since I finished my last radiation treatment...life continues, you go back to work, and you will always have a special bond with those patients with cancer...I still have my port, and want to keep it for awhile longer, it is worth its weight in gold 10 times over...I pull the neck of my scrub top over and let patients see it. I see a 4 year old that has had a liver transplant that likes to feel it...it has bonded us....
Love and light to you and yours,

Posted by: Mindy | Oct 4, 2006 8:32:14 PM

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