It’s always a relief to emerge from a routine breast screening and hear the words “everything looks normal”. But too many of my friends haven’t been that lucky. They’ve faced (and are still facing) the physical and emotional trauma of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and much, much more, while still trying to keep the wheels on their families.
So how do we help a friend facing cancer, or any other kind of health crisis, without adding to their burdens – send a card, cook them a meal or pay them a visit?
Here’s some guidance from two inspirational and brave friends, whose battles with cancer have been made just a little bit easier with the support of family, friends, acquaintances and even strangers.
Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of 2007. She had a bilateral mastectomy, chemo and radiation treatment. Unfortunately the cancer had spread to her spine and brain, so that meant more surgery, more chemotherapy and dreaded brain radiation treatment. Here is her account of how friends made a difference:
“I could not have made it through the tough times without my mates. So, don’t hesitate to contact a friend, no matter how much time has passed between you. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to say. “This really sucks” is a good start. It’s just a great feeling to know so many people are cheering you on. Lovely old friendships have been validated, and blasts from the past are welcomed. Surprisingly, new friendships have formed as generous strangers have entered my life. Phone calls are hard, as cancer can make you crazy-tired, and the phone still exhausts me. Texts and emails are brilliant, but cards or notes popped into the letterbox are a tonic. I used a lot of those notes as bookmarks and they made me smile or were a source of inspiration.
Pyjamas were welcome presents. I was the best-dressed in the hospital thanks to my mates, and my favourite was the gift of a cosy dressing gown from a dear friend’s husband. Distraction is essential. Friends would pop in with a favourite novel, a pile of mags or a DVD. Body lotion and hand creams are brilliant gifts as the treatments are tough on skin. Always tell tales of people you have heard of who are doing well. Success stories only please. It is a battle to keep your head in the right space, so hearing about someone dying, knocks you for six although we will smile bravely. Don’t tell your friend that nothing in life is certain and that any of us could wake up in the morning and get hit by a bus. There are no buses in my bedroom. Invite yourself to a friend’s chemo session. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, your friend will need moral support. Chemo goes on for hours so consider doing shifts with other friends. Take some old photo albums for a laugh, your juiciest gossip and talk about how dreadful your children are. A lovely reminder of the imperfection of all our lives!
My friends co-ordinated a food roster, but what worked the best was having an off-site central drop-off point and my girlfriend would pop in briefly each afternoon with the dinner of the day. Sometimes I was just too sick to talk and my darling friend had a key and slipped the food into the fridge. Kids meals were helpful. I lost my sense of taste, so loved any textured, crunchy salads, although single-serves of soup were helpful for the days when eating was too hard. There does tend to be an oversupply of one-pot meals. Try chopping up vegetables for a stir-fry, and present with some marinated meat all ready to get popped into a wok at your friend’s house. My neighbour brought over a roast meal every Tuesday and my mouth still waters four years later. Baking for school lunch boxes, bagged individually to go into the freezer is great. It is also helpful to write a list of ingredients on the container. Please try and use disposable containers. I have a whole cupboard of unclaimed Tupperware that makes me lose sleep at night.
Don’t be fooled when we pretend that we are coping and breezing through the treatment process. The uncertainty is terrifying and everyone’s approach is different. It is a fact, however, that regular exercise improves survival significantly, so instead of sitting around drinking tea, take your friend for a walk. Encourage your friend to go to the Cancer Council’s ‘Look Good, Feel Better’ programme. Better still, go with her. You get to see lots of lovely new products and everyone needs to know how to draw on eyebrows! Don’t forget spouses and partners. Believe me, they are struggling. If you can’t ring them yourself, get your partner to ring. He may need to persist, but the benefits of a quiet beer with another bloke, or a noisy curry night with the boys, lightens the load they are carrying around in their head. My mum moved in for a while when I was in hospital. She was devastated and relied heavily on encouraging words from my friends. Mum drew great strength from the knowledge that my mates had my back.
The greatest challenge for me was how to handle the children, aged six, twelve and thirteen at the time. Their fears ranged from ‘can I catch cancer?’ to the obvious concern about the longevity of their mum. I needed help with this one. My prognosis was grim and I certainly couldn’t find a handbook on how to fight for your life and be a mum at the same time. I sourced a family counsellor and attended an excellent programme run by the Mater Breast Care Unit entitled ‘Mindful Parenting in the Context of Breast Cancer’. I made plenty of mistakes, the biggest being to over-parent and try and create perfect children quickly… just in case. Terrible plan, by the way. My six year old managed well. His quality of life improved significantly, with prolonged play dates, amazing food and brilliant holidays as I desperately attempted to lay down memories. My teenaged daughters struggled. They could smell fear from ten paces, as the house became a pressure cooker. The girls are sixteen and eighteen now and their main request is honesty. They need to know when a scan is coming up, and that often explains why I am anxious. They want to know what the doctors say. They want to know the good news and the bad. Fortunately they have a good relationship with my oncologist who will temper reality with great optimism, quoting cutting-edge science. I took the girls to chemo once with the hope of de-mystifying the process. They hated it – way too confronting. I maintained regular communication with the schools, and the teachers balanced reassurance with vigilance. Several teachers checked with me that my girls would handle parts of upcoming curriculum containing cancer issues. If any child was withdrawn, or teary, there was always a phone call to check on what was happening at home. More often than not, the issues were unrelated to my illness, but what a relief to know that their welfare was being monitored.
Luck was on my side in some respects. I had taken out a trauma insurance policy years ago, that I had almost forgotten about. It paid for daily cleaning and a night-nanny who came to the house from 5 to 7 pm to do dinner, school lunches, homework, and a quick tidy. She played endless games with my son and taught my girls dance moves in the kitchen. She brought a lot of laughter to the house. Please, please check your insurance status. We all need trauma insurance.
I used to worry that my kids missed out on a part of their childhood. Now I know that no one has a perfect run. My kids have witnessed first-hand the value of great friendships and how you can survive just about anything when you have your mates. They know the value of good health and being happy. Most of the time. And I reckon they will handle life’s curve balls.
Best of all, they are good at saying ‘I love you’. It takes some people a life-time to learn that.”
Karen has ongoing treatment, but she declares she is extremely well and a triumph of modern medicine. Her friends describe her as an inspiration in every way.
Kim is a mother of three boys, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2010. She had three tumours and after wide excision surgery was told the cancer had been discovered early and hadn’t spread. She had six courses of chemotherapy over four months, which caused tiredness, nausea, loss of taste, muscle pains, hair loss and menopause (“chemo has a bad rap because it is bad!”). This was followed by six weeks of radiotherapy.
Here, Kim shares her account:
“The generosity of family, friends and work colleagues during the treatment was just amazing. I heard from just about everyone I have ever known and I appreciated everyone’s thoughts and wishes. Some people later said they did not contact me because they did not know what to say or how to help. That didn’t worry me at all, but I know that in the future I will always try to contact anyone affected by illness or trauma- even indirectly with a card, email or text.
The food was FABULOUS! My work colleagues were fantastic. They organized a daily meal drop for the week after each chemo and were co-ordinated so that we didn’t have lasagne every night. One of the beautiful young admin girls arrived one Saturday evening dressed to the nines, late for a party because she spent all afternoon slaving over a stove for us! Even people I didn’t know, such as the lovely nurses from Steve’s (Kim’s husband’s) work, brought enough food to feed a small nation. Luckily the teenage boys of the house had no problem polishing it off! Yes we were at risk of injury from frozen food falling from the freezer and the rest of the family probably put on weight! Unfortunately they expect the same gastronomic delights now that I am better- bad luck to them!
I also had help in many other ways, which I really appreciated – from picking up kids from school, taking the boys for haircuts and help with sport on Saturdays. This was fantastic as I was often not up to driving and sitting through my three sons’ long list of sporting fixtures. Company for gentle dog walks, tea and chats was lovely (a call or text beforehand was appreciated). I was also thankful that people were aware when I was flagging and kept visits quite short.
One of my friends who went through this for the second time last year added that it was not helpful to hear stories about how someone else had died from cancer or to have to listen to other people’s petty gripes.
However, being there to listen to our petty gripes was appreciated!”
Kim is on medication for the next five years, but her last scans were “all clear” and she feels great!
Kim recommends these sites for information:
Breast Cancer Network Australia – a good place for information and details of other victims’ experiences. There’s also a good site to chat with women going through the same thing.
Cancer Council has counsellors at the end of the phone and offers resources for teens affected by cancer.
CanTeen also has programs for teens with affected family members.
Thank you to the gorgeous Kim and Karen for sharing their personal experiences. We wish them good health and lots and lots of happiness. You deserve it! Our thoughts are also with others who are battling a serious medical condition.