My sister cousin has breast cancer.
She’s also my best friend. She’s not the kind of best friend where we coo about how much we love each other. We don’t call each other BFF’s. We never had the BFF necklaces and we never pinky swore our friendship…we just knew. Just like when we knew that we would be each other’s maid of honor in each of our respective hot sticky summer weddings. We’re 1.5 years apart (she’ll always be older than me). We grew up together. She was my big-city NYC cousin and I was the little country cousin. City mouse and country mouse. Summers were spent together at the lake-sleeping in beds with sandy sheets. We’d sneak true crime novels into our room and Jayme would read to me all the gory details. We made each other mix tapes, called when we had excellent stories to share (mostly about boys), and cried together when our grandparents died. Sobbing heavily, remembering our times spent with them as children. Some days we’re still nostalgic for those moments as we mother our four children (who ironically are almost the exact same ages—no we didn’t plan this).
So when she texted me in February to tell me she found a lump in her breast, we figured it was just a repeat of what I had experienced a few months back. Yes, we text when sharing important information. You know how it is when you have kids…almost impossible to talk on the phone. So text has been our go-to means of conversation. And then when she texted me a few days later with the words, “Cancer. Holy Sh*t,” my world fell apart.
Ok, I know I know…ITS NOT ABOUT ME. You think your world fell apart, Heather? How about her world? How about her husband’s world? How about the world of her incredibly bright, smart, and intuitive 6 year old daughter? I know, it’s not about me. But then one night when I was talking with a friend about how upset I was for Jayme, my friend said to me, “You know, it’s hard to be in your position too.” I instantly felt better.
It is hard being the support person for someone who has cancer or is incredibly sick. Instead of waxing poetic about this entire experience, I wanted to share with you some practical advice on how to be a “good” support person if someone you know has cancer. Some of this information I’m about to share is from my experience, as well as things that have worked for Jayme and her family. As with all things in the blogging world, experience is relative…so what has worked for Jayme and myself, may not work for you and your loved ones. So let’s get started.
With any major life event it seems that people want to provide some sort of food item to the family in need. It just makes sense, and frankly, it’s a great way to help, especially when you’re dealing with a highly charged emotional situation (more on the emotion part later). So when preparing food, keep in mind a few things. You know that amazing, lasagna/ziti/rigatoni/penne pasta recipe you have from Aunt Stella? Well chances are, every other person providing food to this family/friend is also delivering a similar dish. Pasta is amazing. It freezes well, and nothing soothes the spirit, both emotionally and physically, like an alumnimun pan full of carbs. When I went to help Jayme after her mastectomy, I brought along a pan of lasagna, so I too am guilty of providing even more pasta. But here are a few other options to think about if you’re interested in providing easy make-ahead meals: soups, artisan breads, cold cuts, pancakes (make a batch, freeze them individually, heat up in microwave as needed—kids love this!), baked breads/breakfast muffins, casseroles with rice or quinoa, empanadas, enchiladas, pot-pies. Give it a google and see the wonders that await you.
Before you provide food however, it’s always best to check with the family to see if they have already set up an online meal delivery calendar, like mealtrain.com. This is a wonderful way to coordinate meals and make sure a dinner is provided every night or when it’s especially needed for your friend.
Gift Cards/Gift Certificates/Cold Hard Cash
If cooking isn’t your thing, or you’re not geographically close to the person needing extra support, there are still options to help!
Gift Cards/Certificates for the following:
–Grocery stores: Even with health insurance paying the medical bills and a steady job, being able to go to the grocery store and not have to pay out of pocket can brighten someone’s day. A person is more likely to buy something that makes them feel good if they aren’t paying for it with their own money. It doesn’t have to be a week’s worth of groceries…even just enough to buy some nice veggies or a bottle of wine! And that being said, health insurance still doesn’t cover everything. There are little nitpicky items that add up: co-pays, weekly parking charges at the hospital for oncology visits, etc.)
–Restaurants: Going out to eat or getting take-out from a restaurant, when you work full time, have two children, and have cancer…enough said.
–Cleaning services: when I have a cold, I let tissues pile up next to my bed, there are empty water glasses on my nightstand, and the dishes fester in the sink until I can smell them all the way upstairs in my bedroom… and that’s just from having a cold. Let the person in need focus on getting better, spending time with her family rather than having to clean the toilet grundle in the bathroom.
–Cold Hard Cash: I think people feel odd giving money. But what if you put money in a card and told the person it’s for her to spend at a favorite restaurant and to hire a baby sitter? That’s a concrete use for the money, rather than just sending cash with no expectations.
Offering to “help”
My neighbor had a brain tumor removed a few months ago, and the first thing I said to her husband was, “let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” He barely knows me, except that I’m his neighbor, and I often wear ill-fitting pajamas when I run out to check the mail. Surprise, he never took me up on his offer for help. Chances are, people will feel awkward taking you up on their offer to ‘help’ if you’re not concrete or specific in what you’re offering. Jayme said that what was most helpful to her was when friends would reach out and say, “I’m heading to the grocery store to pick up a few things…can I grab anything for you?” Or “hey, I’m taking my son to the park to play for a few hours, would you like me to take your daughter along as well?” I suppose if it was your best friend you could call them up out of the blue and ask them to take your kid out for a play date, but chances are, you’re going to feel a little awkward doing so. If you feel comfortable enough to make an offer to help, be specific so the door is open for the recipient to accept and walk thru without pangs of guilt or feeling like she is imposing.
Emotional Support (this one’s going to be a doozy so hold on tight)
You need to know where you stand with the person who has cancer: Are you a close friend, an acquaintance, a close family member? Once you figure this out, you can then proceed to the next step of providing emotional support. If the person with cancer you know is another mom you see at weekly music class, it’s not appropriate to ask her if she still has her nipple after the mastectomy. Some people have a tendency to treat people with cancer the same way they treat women who are pregnant. Since your sickness and/or condition is so publicly visible some automatically assume they have carte blanche when asking health related questions. If you wonder about how much hair they will lose on their body with chemotherapy, don’t ask them…google it. Express your support without expressing your curiosity about their body and/or prognosis.
If you’re close with the person who has cancer, only you know how to best support her. It’s relative. And if you don’t know what to say…then just say that exactly. You can be eloquent, articulate, and tactful even in a time of feeling helpless. As much as I wanted to cry and sob on the phone when I called Jayme to talk to her about her diagnosis, I kept my sh*t together when speaking to her. The last thing she needed was to hear me crying on the other line. My fear for her future and my sadness for the journey she has to take over the next 14 months aren’t going to be made any easier by my tears in her face (no pun intended). But that is me, and that is the relationship I have with her.
–Phone Calls/Text Messages: reach out, leave messages if they don’t answer the phone…but don’t expect to hear back immediately or even at all. Now isn’t the time to get huffy if you send a text message that says, “Thinking of you today, hope you’re well” and you don’t get a response. Adjust your expectations on how communications might go over the next few months.
–Engage with their kids: If you’re comfortable, and feel like it wouldn’t be too forced, send your friend’s kid a note, or a card, or a silly picture. No need to say, “hey I know your mom is going thru a tough time right now, I’m always here…” but you can say a lot to a child just by sending them a note. Plus, most young kids don’t know email or texts exist yet, so the mail box is still a magical place where letters and stickers arrive from the nice woman driving the white post truck.
–Out of ideas for how to help? Here’s one: write to the family and friends of the person who has cancer and encourage them to write something for her– A letter, a poem, a story about their day, a newspaper clipping, a funny card. Have them send all those letters to you directly. Collect said letters, put them in a large decorative box, and send them to your friend. Instruct her to take out a few cards each time she has chemo and bring them to the session. Each chemo appointment she will have something to read, something that reminds her that every day she is not alone. I did this for Jayme and called the box, “Conversations for Chemo.”
Chances are, if your friend/family member has included you in their journey to “kick cancer’s *ss” they want YOU to be a part of this journey. The YOU that has a good sense of humor, the YOU that talks about silly things and makes bad jokes. They don’t want you to change and be someone else…they want you, their friend.
Honestly, I feel ridiculous providing you with a list of ideas for supporting someone you know who has cancer. I don’t even have cancer. I don’t like telling people what they should and shouldn’t do. I always end up feeling like some skinny hipster Buddha trying to enlighten the world. This is not my intention. You know, I’ve just had a hard time lately writing blog posts because my mind has weighed heavily with my sister cousin. I think about her daily. In some ways I am using this post as both a way of processing, but so as not to be too self-indulgent, also a way of sharing practical information with you. Take it as you like.
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Heather, this is so beautifully written and helpful. This information is fantastic. Thank you for finding the strength to write this and help others!!
I work with Jayme and am in awe of how she has been able to face this with such strength and honesty. I have also recently been trying to support two of my family members with cancer. It is so tough to figure out how to be helpful and not imposing, while being true to your personality and the personalities of those you are trying to help. Your post is beautiful. You so nicely cover it all…not only in your tips which are very helpful (and thoughtful), but in your description of your own emotions. I love how despite the heaviness of your own feelings, you never lose sight of what jayme, her husband and her children must be experiencing, and you never presume to really get it! Well written 🙂
Heather, practical tips in a lyrical essay. How did you manage to do that? I love this piece.
Beautiful piece, Heather. This must have been hard for you.
Nicely done and written, Heather. Hugs to both of you.
Oh man, I’m reading and crying and reading and ignoring my children… Beautiful Heather.
Heather, I know this was a hard one for you. I think you did it beautifully. Very good advice too!