There are far more qualified people in terms of “credentials” like an LSCW or counselor who have an actual background in social services to tell you how to help a friend who has cancer, but I can tell you what worked for me.
The real answer ultimately depends on what your friend wants. Think of the “intercultural” golden rule, as opposed to the original golden rule. “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”
What you think I need may not be what I need.
Like, if you say “do you want me to go to radiation with you?” I will say “no.” Because I don’t even want to go to radiation. It’s already a pain in the neck in terms of having to drive to the hospital every day. If you go too it’s going to take even more time. I’ll be nervous that you’re going to make me late (even though if you drive it’s actually more likely I’ll be on time.) I had one friend three years later tell me they were hurt that I didn’t include them when I had to go to radiation. (Psst…not about you…)
Ask not “if” but “when.” (aka Just Do It)
When I turned another friend down about going to radiation, she said “I want to do something” and started suggesting things. “I could bring a meal over.” “I could take you out for breakfast after radiation.” That last one sounded good and I took her up on it. If you say “if you need anything just call me” it puts too much pressure on the person with the cancer—now they have to come up with something for you to feel good about helping them.
Just do it or be specific when you offer.
“I could bake you a cake” (I had another friend with cancer take me up on that one); “I could take your kids on an adventure;” “I could drop a meal off at your house;” “I could pick your kids up and drive them home after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” How about “let’s go for a manicure together;” or a massage.
One friend left two containers our front porch. One with rice and one with a cheesy Mexican pepper dish. I do not even remember if we ate it. But I remember that friend and am so touched—She heard the news and made the meal and dropped it off with a get well note.
Don’t assume everyone knows
Ask if it’s okay to leave voice mail messages, or where is best to leave them. Absolutely, positively, without very explicit permission say anything on social media. You may have been told something in private and it’s not your news to share. But if it’s okay to leave messages, love, love, love bright sunshiny voice mails.
Make me laugh.
My friend Wendy flew in from Boston (her question was simply “Midway or O’Hare?”) and brought me a Wonder Woman cape, Gummy Boobs and Boob Lollipops. We shared the gummy candies with everyone at radiation that morning—everyone had a great laugh.
I HAVE cancer*. It’s not I AM cancer.
I’m still a wife and a mom and a marketing consultant and all those responsibilities don’t go away with the diagnosis. Likely, particularly for women, even with cancer we are concerned about how we will continue to care for all of the people in our lives that we care for.
Some people may absolutely want you to do the “cancer” stuff. But for others, the perfect thing may be saying “I’m at the grocery store and passing by your house on the way home. What can I bring you?”
*To be clear, It’s I HAD cancer–in 2015. And I’m grateful it was found during a routine mammogram while still at stage 1. Please do get your mammograms regularly. And not just during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Unless, of course, that’s when you are due!