When you Google how to support a friend through cancer, you will find lots of ideas, from running errands to keeping them company through chemo to delivering meals to them. But this month, in honor of National Blood Donor Month, we wanted to bring awareness to a very important but often ignored way to support your friend with cancer and all cancer patients across the country: giving blood. blood crisis
Donor blood is a key asset in the fight against cancer
Cancer patients use more than ¼ of the nation’s blood supply, more than patients with any other disease, and yet only 3% of the US population donates blood according to the Red Cross. Cancer patients need blood for a whole host of reasons, from cancer in the bone marrow that crowds out normal blood cells to chemotherapy that causes anemia to surgery and bone marrow transplants.
Unfortunately, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we are in the midst of the worst blood crisis we’ve seen in the past ten years. The Red Cross, which supplies 40% of the nation’s blood supply, says that they have less than one day’s worth of certain blood types. Since blood supply is so low, it has led to cancer patients being forced to wait until their counts hit dangerously low levels before they can get a blood transfusion. Moreover, less than 10% of the eligible population donates blood on an annual basis, so there was already room for improvement prior to this crisis. This is especially important for young adults. Currently, only 10% of blood donations come from people aged 23-29, and 12% come from people in their 30s despite young adults often being stronger and better candidates for blood donation, and young adults being the most common recipients of donor blood.
Many myths keep young adults from donating blood
One of the big ones is that you can’t give blood after getting a tattoo or piercing; this is false as long as you got your tattoo or piercing at a state-regulated facility, you can donate blood immediately! If it was at a non-regulated facility, you only need to wait a few months before donating. You can also give blood if you’re an alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana user! It is just advisable that you do not use these substances within a few hours before your donation. Many people also assume that you should not give blood if you have a chronic condition or are taking chronic medication. While some conditions and medications do prevent you from giving blood, the majority do not. Check your eligibility for giving blood here.
It’s clear that cancer patients urgently need more people to get out and give blood and to continue making recurring blood donations, especially our fellow adolescent and young adult friends. What better time to donate than National Blood Donor Month? While platelets, O+ and O- blood are in the highest demand, all blood is critically needed, and you can help save lives by giving whatever blood you can. If the cancer patient you’re supporting has a compatible blood type with yours, you can even do what’s called a Direct Donation, where you give blood specifically to be used by that person (though call the blood bank in advance as there may be specific requirements, processing fees, and the blood may go to waste if the patient isn’t able to use it in time). If you don’t have a compatible blood type with them, they will surely still appreciate that you gave blood to help other cancer patients, just as other selfless donors have done for them.
To find out more and schedule your appointment to give blood, check out blood drives through the Red Cross, or find your local blood bank through AABB (Association for the Advancement of Blood & Biotherapies) here.
I’ll be honest – I was never much of a New Year’s resolution kind of person before cancer. I always felt like I was just setting myself up for failure and that whatever was meant to happen would work itself out. After cancer, though, I’ve felt much more of a desire to be more intentional with my time, and part of that includes setting New Year’s Resolutions. It’s a great opportunity to sit down and think about what you want your next 12 months to look like in all facets of your life. If you’re a supporter of someone with cancer, this is a great opportunity to sit down and think about what you want your support to look like.
If you don’t know where to start with making resolutions, here are some to get you started:
Be intentional with my support
We’re all insanely busy right now. We’re living through political unrest, the worst pandemic in recorded history, a climate crisis, and more, and we’re expected to continue moving on with life as normal. This can put us into survival mode, and things might slip through the cracks, including remembering to support our friends through cancer. Setting a resolution to be intentional with support is a great way to make sure that your support doesn’t fall by the wayside.
One great and easy way to ensure you’re being intentional with your support is to set recurring reminders to check in on your friend and see how their treatment is going so that you never forget to ask. Their answer might be the same every time you reach out to them, but I promise they’ll still appreciate you reaching out and showing an interest in what they’re going through. Another great way to be intentional is to set a weekly time to get a coffee, FaceTime, go for a walk, etc., with your friend. They might have some weeks where it’s not possible for them to get out of bed, but having that time on the calendar regardless is a great way for you to make sure you’re making time for your friend through all of your own craziness in your life. And if your friend is too ill to see you on a given week, you could use that time to help them around the house, run an errand for them, take care of their kids or pets for them, and more!
Balance my own needs with the needs of my friend
When someone has cancer, it’s easy to lose sight of your own needs because you’re trying to show up for your friend. But you can’t be a good supporter if you’re running on empty. One important resolution for the new year is to make sure that you’re balancing your own needs. Whether that looks like ensuring that you schedule in your own self-care and relaxation time, starting therapy, or even just getting outside for fresh air a few times a day, think about what you need in order to feel like you can support your friend without sacrificing your own well-being, and make sure you prioritize time to do that in your schedule.
Be present with my support
It’s easy to make plans with a friend, but it’s harder to be 100% present during those plans. Make a pact with yourself to be as present as possible with your support – put your phone on do not disturb, turn the TV off, and remove the distractions. Also, take your friends’ lead when it comes to social media. Some cancer patients love posting about visits from friends and love it when their friends do the same. Others, though, feel that they’re being used for clout when someone posts about a visit to them. Part of being present is understanding their desires and doing your absolute best to respect those.
Show forgiveness (for yourself and your friend)
Cancer fundamentally changes people and relationships, and there’s often no way around it. Your friend may inadvertently say or do something that offends you, or you may do the same to them. This doesn’t make either of you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean you’ve grown apart. It’s just a sign that you need to learn how to communicate with each other again.
Throughout this process of re-learning how to communicate with each other, empathy and forgiveness will become super important. You’ll need to show empathy for them and what they’re going through, and through that you’ll need to forgive them for saying or doing things that you don’t love as they adjust to this crazy new life they’ve been thrust into. At the same time, you’ll need to be able to forgive yourself. This is your first time dealing with something like this, and there is no handbook for this kind of thing. You will almost certainly get things wrong at some point.
It can sometimes be tempting to wallow in your mistakes – thoughts like “my friend is already suffering, why did I have to make that worse?” can often dominate your mind. But once you’ve owned your mistake and apologized to your friend (for more details on what to do when you get it wrong, check our recent podcast episode), the most important thing is that you forgive yourself. We all get it wrong sometimes, and dwelling on it is not helpful to anyone.
These are just a few of the many resolutions that a supporter could set for themselves in order to be a better supporter. Hopefully, they give you a good start to set your own supporter resolutions! Have a resolution that you’d like to see added to the list? Let us know!
The holidays are typically seen as a time to celebrate, be with family and friends, exchange gifts, and honor religious or other cherished traditions. When a cancer diagnosis enters the picture, patients and their caregivers can feel disconnected, isolated, and out of sync with everyone else. There can be a lot of extra stress and uncertainty about what’s ahead, wanting to be part of the celebration but knowing that things won’t be the same this year, and feeling pressure to put on a happy face when they may not be feeling it. And for supportive family and friends, they may struggle with what to do and say and how to celebrate when it might feel selfish to be joyful.
Cancer takes so much from our loved ones. Don’t allow it to take away the relationships and special moments we have to spend together, especially during the cherished holidays.
Support Squad Webinar Recap
In our fifth episode of the Support Squad Webinar Series, Cancer and the Holidays: What to do when it doesn’t feel like there is much to celebrate, we discussed how the experience looks different depending on where they are in their cancer journey, the importance of clear communication and expectation management, and offered some tips and strategies to reduce stress and redesign the holidays so they are the best they can be given the circumstances.
We had the chance to hear firsthand from young adult cancer survivor Chiara Riga about her experience with cancer in the midst of COVID-19, from bereaved caregiver Abby Westerman about her struggles both during her 20-year-old daughter’s cancer treatment and during the holidays since she has passed, and from AYA cancer patient advocate Kara Noskoff on the many ways to bring “home” into the hospital, particularly during the holidays. Listen to the full episode here.
Tips to Improve the Holiday Experience
Tip 1: Be Present, Not Perfect
Striving for holiday perfection introduces a lot of added pressure and stress for families impacted by cancer who may not have the energy or resources to achieve this unreachable standard. The secret to creating a more meaningful and less stressful holiday? Be present, not perfect.
Ensuring loved ones with cancer feel included, seen, and heard, and asking them who they want to see, what activities are important, and where is the least stressful place to celebrate will result in a fulfilling, meaningful, and memorable holiday. The three key elements to being present and improving connection and support apply equally well when planning for the holidays when cancer enters the picture.
Understand what your loved ones are going through.
Clearly communicate needs and manage expectations.
Work together to provide support.
By understanding their experience and challenges and focusing on what is most important to our loved ones impacted by cancer, a new holiday plan can be created that offers the chance for new traditions and memories ready to be made.
Tip 2: Understand What Your Loved Ones with Cancer are Going Through
Depending on where each person is with their cancer experience, the needs and holiday adjustments will look different. If they are undergoing treatment, there may be physical and emotional changes like:
Sensitivity to certain foods or smells
Compromised immune system – at higher risk when exposed to people who are sick
They might also be stuck in the hospital, which can be especially difficult during the holidays when all they want is home. Find ways to bring “home” holiday traditions and normalcy to them and involve them in the process.
If they are no longer undergoing treatment, they may be adjusting to their new normal. However, they may still have residual effects, including anxiety, depression, physical changes, mobility limitations, or reduced energy. They may also be focused on moving forward and want to be more involved in the holiday plans without being babied.
If the person with cancer did not survive, their family and friends might be struggling with grief and loss. The holidays can be particularly difficult and triggering when that special person is no longer present.
Whether you are planning the celebration or are a supportive family member or friend, it’s essential to understand what they are going through, what is creating stress, and what concerns or limitations exist to help reduce stress and give them the normalcy they desire.
“I don’t want the holidays to be all about my cancer. They want normalcy and to enjoy time with their special people.
“Don’t baby me. They are not broken. Treat them like a person, not a patient.
“Go ahead and ask. I know you want to. Ask, but don’t dwell on it. There are lots of other things they enjoy talking about!”
“Just enjoy the little moments with me. Be present. Time is the most important thing. Enjoy the people in your life!”
“You can still be happy. In fact, I would prefer it. You are not selfish for talking about you. Don’t feel guilty about the good in your life.”
We would add the following for bereaved caregivers, family, and friends:
“Let me keep my loved one’s voice and memory in the conversation.”
Talking about loved ones can be triggering, but not talking about them can feel isolating – like everyone has moved on and forgotten them. When the loved one’s name comes up, don’t be afraid to talk about them, and avoid changing the subject. Be aware, read the room, and hold space when it is clear that a memory is important or emotionally triggering. Your support and understanding will mean a lot.
(In loving memory of Kirsten Westerman)
Tip 3: Clearly Communicate and Manage Expectations
Good communication is vital to an improved holiday experience. Be clear on specific needs, concerns, and priorities for the holidays. Think of it this way: If you don’t communicate what is needed, you will get what they think you need. Although some people will be in sync with your every desire, most will appreciate clear guidance on how to support or adjust and will be more than happy to do so.
And remember, good communication goes both ways. If you don’t know what they want, ask them. A great example is the guidelines for in-person gatherings in the face of continued COVID-19 concerns. Be sure to ask cancer survivors about their concerns and make accommodations accordingly. If they are more comfortable with outdoor gatherings, find a way to make that happen. If attending guests live in households with unvaccinated occupants, ask how they feel about possible indirect exposure.
Bottom line: Don’t make them guess – it just adds stress.
When it comes to the holiday traditions and rituals, work with survivors or caregivers to identify what is most important to them during the holidays and clearly communicate that ahead of time so family and friends can adjust their plans and expectations. If you haven’t seen each other in a while, prepare them ahead of time for any changes that might catch them off guard. If you are a caregiver, let them know your emotional status and where you could use some help.
One approach is writing a Cancer Letter to family and friends that is authentic and reflects your situation and concerns. It can be a great tool to address the elephant in the room, provide power and control over the narrative, and help introduce and navigate the alterations to the holidays, mitigating uncomfortable discussions during get-togethers. Letting people know ahead of time creates realistic expectations and lessens any awkwardness someone might feel if they react with surprise.
When it comes to boundaries, don’t think about what you “should” be doing, but rather what you need to do to protect your mental and physical health. If you have any special needs to be addressed, make sure they are known in advance. This can include:
Hygiene/protective equipment needs
In-person gathering concerns/limits
Rest/quiet spaces to retreat
Anything that will make your experience more comfortable and less stressful should be shared. Decide in advance how much information you want to offer, and consider preparing answers to uncomfortable questions they may ask so you aren’t caught off guard. It is okay to set limits, say no, and ask for help. Be honest with yourself and your family. Being clear about needs or asking for help is not a sign of weakness. People want to be supportive and just need simple guidelines or instructions, so give them that chance with clear information. Finally, don’t feel guilty for declining requests or changing plans. People will understand.
Tip 4: Define Priorities and Refine the Holiday Rituals
Traditions and rituals are important, and while they can be comforting, they can also create an unrealistic vision for the “perfect” holiday. With a new perspective on life, some things may no longer feel important or have the same value they once did. Some can even be triggering and bring up emotions that are still fresh. Not all activities will be as easy as they once were. Assess and prioritize the activities and people that are important and focus on those. Allow adequate time and make adjustments so they are still doable. Be okay with change. Remember, it can lead to new experiences, new memories, and new opportunities for growth.
To reduce stress, something has to give this holiday, but what? How do you decide what is important and what can be skipped (or delegated to a supportive family member or friend) this year? Distill your rituals down to their essence – why is that particular activity important? Usually, the activity is not what’s important, but rather the value is in spending time together and creating memories. If that activity is too tiring, brainstorm alternatives that give you time together without the same feelings of exhaustion.
Check out redesigning the holiday, to learn the five steps that will help clarify where the focus should be this year.
Try to focus on enjoying the new traditions and special moments, rather than how cancer has changed a holiday or special occasion.
Be realistic about what you can do. Schedule activities when you have the most energy. Allocate additional time to prepare – for example, cook ahead and freeze meals. If it is easier to do certain things online – do it! You can online shop, order food and have it delivered, etc.
Find the right balance between celebrating with family and friends and spending time on your own.
Give yourself permission to pace your activities and to decline an invitation or two so that you have the energy to enjoy the gatherings that are most important to you.
Tip 5: Involve the Support Squad in the New Plan
Once family and friends are aware of the new holiday plans, they may have additional questions about how they can help, what they can bring, gift ideas, etc. Remind them of what is on the buy/don’t buy list due to cancer-related sensitivities.
Remember that presence, making new memories with special people, and overall normalcy are often valued over gifts. When selecting gifts, practical things that will make a difference in their quality of life are a safe bet but be sure to ask what is important to them.
If they are in the hospital or can’t attend the gathering at the last minute due to health concerns, prepare a separate meal for them and have it delivered. They will appreciate feeling included and loved even though they could not be there in person.
Every situation is different, but implementing the simple tips above will create an inclusive, meaningful, and memorable holiday. Understand what they are going through and what will help reduce stress. Keep it simple – only do what is doable and important. Focus on being in the moment with each other and enjoy the holiday celebrations in whatever form they take, whether in-person or virtual, big or small.
Follow your loved one’s lead during conversations, and hold space when things get uncomfortable or emotional. If your loved one can’t make it to the holiday celebration, find ways to bring the essence of the holiday to them so they feel included and remembered. Be open to change and new activities – it is the opportunity for creating new memories.
The Bottom Line:Seek presence, not holiday perfection, with family and friends. You will be giving each other the best present of all!
What does support look like?I’ve taken too long to answer this awesome question that I’ve been asked so many times. As the journey has continued to unfold, I’ve learned support really comes down to this one concept.
On any given day, support means that my hardship, struggle, messiness, or pain isn’t too much for you to handle.
I wonder how many of us have believed the lie “we are too much.” I sure have. We feel we can’t be real because what we are going through will be too big a burden on others. It will hurt others, often those we love most. So we don’t ask for help, we say “we are fine” when sometimes we aren’t, we press on with our nose to the grind because we don’t want to inconvenience or trouble anyone else.
If supporting me means that my hard isn’t too hard for you, then what does that actually look like and mean day-to-day?
Margarett Hansen and her husband Kris
Support is two-fold.
Well, it’s two-fold. In part, it means that you are self-aware enough of your own heart, well being, and limitations; to know what you can and cannot handle or offer. And that’s not for me to determine. For me, it means asking specific questions like, “how are you, TODAY?” “Is it a good day or a hard day?” If it’s a good day, we rejoice! If it’s a hard day, and you have the capacity to offer assistance, a great follow up question is, “Do you have what you need in this moment?” Or “Is there a need I can fill today or tomorrow?”
If you can’t help because of distance or you’re also running at your max capacity, which is totally fine too, then simply acknowledging my struggle and saying, “what is hard about today?” and listening or saying, “I am so sorry you’re going through this.” is enough. We both know you can’t fix it. Ultimately, don’t we all want to be heard, seen, and known?
Things that were unhelpful
I have experienced people projecting their own issues on me too. This is NOT helpful. I had several conversations that went something like “thank you for the offer. I know I will need help, but I don’t know what that looks like yet. I will ask for help when I know what I need.” I personally felt dishonored because some people assumed I couldn’t/wouldn’t ask for help after confessing it was because they themselves had a hard time with it. I think this goes back to not wanting to burden others.
What would have honored my heart would have been to say, “I know you have a lot going on, when you know what kind of help you need, please let me know.” Or even better, “I’ll check back in on you and see if you have a better idea of how I can help you through this season.” Stop and think about asking a better, more specific, or intentional question.
Some offered support by sharing their own cancer journey or reaching out to friends who had been through it. They asked those with first-hand knowledge for wisdom and passed it along. I found this to be really helpful to prepare and anticipate what was ahead since everything is a new experience!
Now I am in active treatment, and I have a much clearer understanding of what I need from week to week. Chemo weeks, meals are really helpful! I’m in bed most of the week. I couldn’t tell you this in the beginning. I didn’t know. Around days 7-10 post-chemo, when I’m feeling better, I enjoy cooking for my family and doing normal things again! Help with the kids is also incredible! This is a harder need to fill, I realize.
I love the messages, the packages, Bible verses, and encouraging quotes! This is all supportive too! Come sit with me and chat while I’m laid up resting. Share what’s going on in YOUR life. I want to know your heart too. Healthy relationships are give-and-take. I may not be able to give as much right now, but I can listen, and I still care about YOU!
I hope in sharing my heart and journey it helps you support others that may be going through a hard time in their lives. I realize what may be helpful for me may not be helpful for others. Sometimes it’s best to honestly ask your struggling friend or family member, “What is NOT helpful for you right now? Answering this is sometimes easier than answering, “What can I do for you?