You Just Found Out Your Friend Has Cancer – Now What?
Most young adults never expect to hear the words “I have cancer” come up in a conversation, and they feel totally unprepared when it does. The news that your friend has cancer feels scary and overwhelming, but it is important to approach the news with courage and compassion. Life is upended, and your friend needs you now more than ever. Your presence will give them the stability they need as everything else around them changes. With a shared understanding of what is ahead and the support your friend desires, you will ensure your friend receives the support needed during treatment and beyond. Here are some suggestions for how to move forward together.
Step 1: Understand what’s ahead
- Every person responds differently to the news, and not everyone wants to share it with others. When your friend with cancer shares their diagnosis with you, it means they trust YOU with that information, so be sure you understand and respect their privacy wishes. Sharing the news with the wrong people can impact relationships, work, school, and even insurance.
- Depending on the cancer stage of cancer at diagnosis, treatment may start immediately or there may be a few weeks before it begins. It may require an extended hospital stay (inpatient), or your friend may be commuting to the hospital intermittently for procedures (outpatient). Your friend’s support needs will vary depending on their care plan as well as how they are feeling on a given day in response to treatment.
Step 2: Learn how your friend wants to be supported
- Connection, support, and normalcy are the things your friend needs from you. Stay authentic to your relationship and remember that the diagnosis has not changed who your friend is on the inside.
- When asking how you can help, your friend may not have an answer. That is okay. Sometimes just listening and providing a safe space to process their emotions is all they want. Needs may come up naturally in the conversation. If they are looking for answers or inspiration, help them find it. If questions come up, write them down so your friend can ask the medical team later. If there are resources you think might be helpful, share those when the time feels right. Be careful to not be that person that pushes all of your beliefs on them. Respect their choices and decisions and offer recommendations only when asked. Help comes in many forms, so find positive and meaningful ways to make their day better.
- Clear communication of needs is key, but it is humbling to ask for help and is sometimes hard to know what to ask for in the beginning. Having to come up with needs may lead to added stress. Offering specific items or help will ease the burden of asking, but remember to give them room to decline your offer without taking offense. They may just not be ready to receive what you are offering on that day. It is not personal. As they get more comfortable asking for and accepting help, offering and providing support will get easier.
Step 3: Work together to establish a support network
- It is important to organize the peer support network early and emphasize the importance and impact their support will have on your friend’s quality of life. The first few weeks after diagnosis is often when many friends and peers will fade away, never be heard from again. Reinforcing how they make a difference may help motivate them to stay connected.
- If you or your peers are struggling with showing up, find the help needed to work through it. Remember you don’t have to do something big to be in someone’s life and make a difference. If you can’t get past it, let your friend know you are struggling. Honesty and authenticity are so important during this time and assure your friend you are not abandoning them.
- Create a group chat so you can stay coordinated and reach out to each other as needed. Make sure everyone is on the same page with the privacy guidelines.
- Find a tool that best meets the needs of your friend and the support network. There are several online tools available to help support networks stay connected, including b-there, a connection tool designed specifically for young adult cancer patients. Other tools available include CaringBridge, MealTrain, Lotsa Helping Hands, and IanaCare. Whatever works best for your network and will help you stay connected and consistent is what you should use.
- The more supporters that can stay connected, the more likely consistent support can be achieved. Your friend won’t always want or need support, but being there when support is needed is vital to their quality of life. As we have learned from COVID-19, presence is more than being in the same room. There are many ways to connect without being in the same place, and just showing up, in person or virtually, makes a big difference.
Step 4: Be consistent and committed
- If you have a busy schedule with many competing priorities, commit to a regular check-in routine, and put a reminder on your calendar. This will help you stay consistent, and your friend will appreciate the assurance that they are not alone.
- Put the device down when you are together (unless you are using it to enhance your conversation)
- LISTEN without distractions or judgment.
- Embrace the silence when there is nothing to say, and acknowledge when you don’t know what to say.
- Every day will be different. Depending on the cancer treatment, how your friend is feeling, and what other life stressors exist, some days will feel normal, and others will be a struggle for your friend. Try to understand their current emotional and physical state so you can find ways to best support them.
- If you are unsure how to help during certain situations, there are resources that can help you work through the challenges and stay committed. If you need peer to peer support, options include Imerman Angels, GRYT Health, Cancer Lifeline
- Don’t give up. Your friend may not be feeling well enough to answer your text or call, but know that they read and hear them all and appreciate you checking in.
Step 5: Take care of yourself too
- You have to be present with yourself before you can truly be present for others. If you are feeling stressed, anxious, or tired, be sure you are making time to recharge and heal.
- If you are feeling sick, remember you can be a health risk to your friend. Find an alternate date to hangout or a different activity, so you can keep them safe. Even if you can’t be with them in person, there are many other ways to be present. It is about finding balance, making time when you can, and prioritizing your friend’s needs when you know they need you.
- There will be times when you need to talk and process your feelings to keep your own mental health in check. It’s important to avoid venting your frustrations to the person that is undergoing treatment. They are probably already feeling like a burden. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a therapist, friend, counselor, trained social worker, or other trusted confidant (always remembering your friend’s privacy wishes). Unresolved emotions can build up and will affect your ability to support, so make sure you find the person or activity that gives you some relief.
Step 6: Make the best of every moment together
- Make the time to be present when they need you, give them space when they need it, stay flexible, and be understanding when things do change.
- Take turns answering the question “How are YOU doing?” (One-word answers don’t count 😉). It can be easy to forget that both the survivor and supporter are going through a difficult time. Allowing each to feel like their experience matters can bring you closer together.
- Recreate old memories to provide comfort and a sense of normalcy.
- Create new memories and traditions that you can plan and experience for the first time together.
- Find activities that you can do/learn together and keep the conversation fresh (yoga, music, art project, webinar, mini book club, etc).
- Find forgiveness when emotions flare. Life is too short to hold grudges. Work through it, learn from it, and move forward. If it helps, have a favorite picture of the two of you handy—it will remind you of how great your friendship is and can help pull you through the challenges.
- We are never guaranteed tomorrow, so don’t put off a visit or connection because “something better” came up. Think of it this way, ten years from now, will you remember a meaningful one-on-one night with your friend that needed you or the Friday night party? If you choose to go to the party instead, be honest with your friend and have the courtesy to cancel or reschedule. Tables turned, what would you hope your friend would do?
Let us know your thoughts. If you didn’t find the information you were looking for, please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions you have. We’re here to help.
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