How To Really Be There When A Friend Has Cancer

by Powell Berger
Originally Published: 

Remember when we were kids, and something would happen to one of our parents’ friends and our moms would kick into action? In my case, I never knew exactly what the catalyst was, but I knew there was trouble when I’d find my mother making an extra casserole in that dish with the snap-on top. Maybe someone was sick, or someone died, or something dreadful had happened. Sometimes I’d never find out; I’d just sit in the car while she ran in to drop off the dish, and then wait while she retrieved the empty CorningWare a week later.

Now it’s our turn. It’s our friends who are getting sick or losing a child or having something terrible horrible happen to them that takes our breath away. How was it our mothers knew just what to do?

When it happened to me, it was breast cancer. I’d just turned 40 and was coming to terms with the realities of middle age when the pea in my left breast turned out to be malignant. I knew the moment I rolled over one morning and felt it there, rolling around beneath the soft tissue like a bullet waiting to explode. Overnight, it seemed, I went from being a woman staring down middle age to the youngest woman in the oncology center. “Oh, you’re so young to be here!” the nurse would say as she hooked up my chemo. I wanted to hit her.

Then there was my neighbor, the one who subscribed to every new age treatment she found on the Internet, who called me almost daily with well-intended instructions. “Really, you need to do Qiyong at least once a week,” she’d say, “and you should do Changquan too if you want to get stronger. Really, you have to.”

“I don’t do things I can’t pronounce,” I finally told her, and then quit taking her calls. Eventually an Alcoholics Anonymous friend told me that words like “should” and “need” are trigger words to impose guilt.

“Fuck ‘should,'” my AA friend said. I made it my mantra.

Now another friend 5,000 miles away is staring down that pea-like bullet threatening to explode in her breast and wreak its own special hell on her life. Besides cluing her in to my mantra when it comes to words like “need” and “should,” I’m remembering the things done for me—what helped, what didn’t, and what made me want to rip off the faces of the clueless (those who stared at my chest) and the clumsy (the “get healthy for your children” crowd).

Maybe your friend’s facing the same hell. Maybe these thoughts are useful.

Don’t treat her like she’s knocking on death’s door.

She’s not. Both my business partner and my sister-in-law counseled me to take to my bed, get things in order, see sunsets and keep a gratitude journal for my kids. “I’m not dead yet,” I told them. Then I quit talking to them until it was over, my hair had grown back, and I had my new perky breasts to replace the ones cancer had ravaged.

Do send cards and notes.

Real mail—hand-addressed with a stamp and everything—is a rare mailbox treat. The cards can be funny, heartfelt or silly. But they can’t be morose. And for God’s sake, don’t even venture into the sympathy card section. (See the note above.) And if you’re going to spring for a card and the 49 cent stamp, don’t just sign it. Write a note. Tell her you’re thinking about her, that you wish her well, that you love her. Tell her that cancer sucks. Do not tell her that God has a plan, and that He is looking after her. I promise you she’s not feeling it right now. (Check out these cards, designed by a cancer survivor. She got it right.)

Don’t ask her to let you know what you can do for her.

C’mon, get real. She doesn’t have a clue what you can do for her. She barely knows how to get up and get dressed every morning. You know what you can do, so figure it out and do it. Offer to drop her kids off at school, soccer, piano practice or band rehearsal. Find your casserole dish with the snap-on lid and drop dinner off. (Or better yet, get a disposable dish and use that. Then there’s no need for her to return anything.)

Stop by and clean her kitchen or do her laundry—or get together with a group of friends and hire a housekeeper to stop in once a week to help out. When I was sick, a group of women—some I didn’t even know—organized a serious food brigade, delivering dinner to my doorstep four nights a week for six months. Even thinking about those women makes me cry, and one of them I still only know as the chicken casserole lady. And I know she’s got an extra star shining down on her.

Do send care packages.

Remember the ones you sent your kids at camp or got from your parents when you were in college? They work every time. Fuzzy fun socks, tabloid newspapers, gossip magazines, trashy beach books, journals, pinup calendars, a squirt gun, a box of chocolates (really good chocolates—this is no time for the cheap stuff), even a whoopee cushion. Imagine the fun she can have with a whoopee cushion and the nurses in the chemo center. I was building my house when I got sick—cancer has a twisted sense of timing and humor—and when all my hair fell out, my hippie surfer builder showed up one day with a bag and handed it to me. “For you,” he said and went back to the scaffolding. It was a hat—a perfect navy blue, wide-brimmed hat. His wife later told me that she had to bring home almost a dozen options before he settled on that one. It was the kindest thing anyone ever did for me.

Don’t disappear.

I don’t care that you don’t know what to do. Who the hell really knows what to do when life turns to shit and it feels like everything is falling apart? Show up. Call. Do something. One woman—not really a friend but more than an acquaintance—somehow knew my chemo schedule, and she’d call every time I headed out the door and say, “Seriously, you’ve got another date with Kimo? He’s so mean to you. He makes you throw up. You’ve got to find a nicer guy! Or at least find a pot dealer so you can tolerate the asshole.” She said the same thing every time. And I laughed. Every time.

Cancer sucks. Diseases that rip into our bodies—often those same organs that bring new life into this world and sustain it in its earliest, most fragile days—are their own special brand of hell. And yet, as women, we remain stronger than that hell, particularly when we come together and stare it down.

Chances are you know a woman facing this hell. Maybe you’ve been wondering what you might do. Maybe this helps.

As for me, I’m heading out to find a coconut bra and hula skirt for my friend back on the east coast. I figure she might wear it to chemo one day, which will surely give those nurses something to talk about besides the fact that she’s too damn young to be in that chair. Because we’re all too damn young to be in that chair.

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