Breast cancer survivor and Founder of The Silver Pen blog, Hollye Jacobs, shares a few words of wisdom.It’s easy to be friends when talking over lunch, catching up on a hike or planning a dinner party. However, when your friend is diagnosed with cancer, the dynamic changes in a big way. I know this firsthand because I have been both a cancer patient and the friend of a cancer patient. Though having cancer yourself is obviously more difficult, being the friend is also fraught with anxiety and vulnerability.
As a happy, healthy, vegan-eating, marathon-running, 39-year-old mother with no family history of breast cancer, being diagnosed with the disease rocked my world. What I know for sure both professionally and now personally is that cancer doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens to you, your family, your friends and your community.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed and helpless, there are tools to help support a friend who has cancer. When it comes to being a friend to someone with cancer, my suggestions revolve around the concept of being.
1. Be present.Presence does not necessarily mean in the flesh. Not everyone wants to be visited. Presence means helping with childcare, dropping off food and running errands, to name a few. These are all wonderfully supportive forms of presence. Being present means practicing random acts of kindness in the form of sending a note, suggesting a film, or proposing a book, poem or quote.
2. Be inquisitive.Ask your friend first if she feels up to talking and then what specifically would be helpful during treatment. Don’t assume. It’s OK if there is no answer or if the answer changes. Just asking the question and being inquisitive is incredibly sensitive, thoughtful and generous.
3. Be calm. No drama.Throughout this process, my family and I were cool, calm and collected (not without focused effort) because we intentionally surrounded ourselves with friends who functioned the same way we did. That isn’t to say that there weren’t a few requisite ‘roid rage-style explosions (from the steroids) or chemo-sobby episodes; however, calmness went a long way in maintaining perspective and balance. I especially appreciated when my friends didn’t try to problem-solve (the often unsolvable problems) and didn’t flinch when they saw my bald head or my near-anorexic body.
4. Be persistent.Many people told me that they “didn’t want to bother me” when I was sick. I appreciated the presumed sensitivity; however, there was nothing better than receiving a voicemail or email that said, “I’m thinking about you. You don’t need to respond. Just know.” I received these gestures every single day. They are fueling and loving.
5. Be normal.Talk with your friend the same way you did before she became ill. Joke with her. Kvetch about the weather. Talk about the best (and worst!) dressed at the Emmys. When a person is sick, there is hopefulness in the ordinary, everyday life. If you feel nervous about visiting — a normal response! — make a list of topics to begin a dialogue.
Hollye, here wearing Tory's Patsy coat and Drew pant, photographed by Nancy Neil