Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What to "Do" When Someone You Know Has Cancer

Since my husband has been diagnosed with cancer, I've been approached by many people who ask the question "I want to reach out to family and friends who are struggling with cancer, but don't know exactly what to do. Would you have any suggestions?" First and foremost for all of us to remember, is that every person's situation is different. I can relate our experiences to you, but once again it will only be a guideline.

All patients and caregivers react to a diagnosis of cancer in their own specific way. Some may become withdrawn and absolutely do not wish to speak about it at all. Others may need absolute privacy during this very difficult time, as they try to deal with the physical and emotional aspect. Some patients may be very ill, while others may appear relatively well. Each situation is completely different, so we all need to step back and take time to "think" before we "act"! Remember that those affected, will need time themselves to deal with the initial shock of their diagnosis, as well as their caregivers and families.

My first advice is to just be there for patients and their caregivers and family. Talk to a family member to let them know you are thinking about them and to see if there is anything you can do. Assess the situation first before rushing in.

I remember one thing that really played havoc on all of us once we arrived back home from the hospital and my husband was feeling miserable, was a ringing telephone. Such a simple thing, isn't it? Maybe it was the fact that none of us had very much sleep during this time and it seems that darn phone would always ring, just when you were settling down to rest. Or more important, just when my husband finally fell off to sleep after a very restless night, that phone would ring and he'd instantly wake. It is natural that most people would call the family home at this time, but in situtions where the patient may not be feeling well, it's best to check with a family member first.
Respect the family's privacy at this time as well. Instantly their lives have been turned around, and they need this time to spend together. They don't need people constantly stopping by at the most inappropriate times. It is important for all of us to remember that this is the family's time now, so please wait your turn for when the time is right. Why don't you mail a card to show you are thinking about them. Don't worry that the card itself may not be cancer specific, but a "Thinking of You" will be perfect. We received lovely cards during our initial return home from the hospital and we still remember each and every individual who sent one. It was a wonderful way to let us know that they were there if we needed them.

If you really want to do something, preparing a nutritious meal for the patient and their family would be an excellent idea. Who has time to do that when your loved one is very ill? Everyone needs to maintain a healthy eating ritual, so make that meal and quickly deliver it without inviting yourself inside. Of course, as I said earlier, every situation is different, so if the patient and family are open to visitors, then accept the invitation inside.

Once you do have an opportunity to visit the patient, please don't make your conversation all about "cancer".....don't even bring up the topic, unless the patient wishes to discuss it. Talk about usual topics and not constantly bring up the "C" word. The patient needs diversion at this time. Don't talk about someone else you previously knew you also had cancer and about the difficult time they had or how sick they may have looked. That is the worse possibly thing you could do!!!! What patient with any illness wants to hear that??? I've had people tell me similiar stories of their loved ones and how much they may have endured during their journey. As much as I appreciated what they may have gone through and that they needed to talk with others about their struggles, that is not what I wanted to hear when our family was trying to deal with our own crisis. You can never compare how two individuals react to illness, so don't cause additional stress to patients and their families by talking about what others may have endured. Try not to talk to the patient about another person who may have recently lost his/her battle with cancer, unless it is someone who they may have known personally. Visits to funeral homes as well, should be kept to a minimum and never ask a cancer patient if he/she will be going to the funeral home or service. If they want to, they will attend without your urging....once again each situation is different so this is just a suggestion. You need to keep them as positive as possible! They already have so much to deal with as a cancer patient and we can all imagine just how difficult it must be at times to keep that positive mind. Our experiences have proven without a doubt, that a patient who does not dwell on negativity, can beat the odds. One who keeps his mind occupied with other things than the cancer diagnosis, is a very strong ingredient to survival!
If a cancer patient is feeling relatively well and would love to have company, then by all means, check with the family first and then go visit. Maybe a short drive would be the perfect thing to do, or sitting outside to have a nice chat. Let the patient lead the way and you follow. Let them know you care about them and you are there for them.

Our family could not spend every minute of every day together while my husband was convalenscing, so we "escaped" from our home whenever we could all spend time together. We felt that if we stayed at home, we would have company for sure, and neither myself nor daughers, wanted to share our precious time with my husband, with anyone else. It was "our" time, and if leaving home was the way to spend it together with no interruptions, then that's what we did. We'd take short drives at first or visit nearby beaches on a Sunday afternoon. On days when my husband was feeling relatively good, we'd escape for sure and that was our special time together!

Don't overstay your visits! Our friends and family have been very understanding. They know that for the most part, my husband goes to bed early, so they respect that and know the appropriate time to leave. Rest is so important to any patient, and especially if someone is receiving chemo or radiation treatments, feeling tired is the norm, and rest is very critical.

We know personally that dealing with cancer can be a very difficult journey. There will be times when everything will appear very normal, but other times when the patient and families are dealing with difficult test results, medical issues and restless nights. Overtime, many of you will get caught up in your own personal lives and if things seem to be going well for the patient, you just might not keep in touch as often. Remember, that the patient is still living with that diagnosis everyday, so don't wait too long to let him/her know that you still care. Patients always need inspiration to help them get through very difficult days, so don't ever forget that they need your support and encouragement!!!
A cancer diagnosis can also be very expensive for patients and their families. Travel to hospitals for oncologist's appointments and testing, not to mention cancer fighting drugs can reap havoc on their finances. Some patients are forced to sell their homes and relinquish their hard earned savings. Keep this in mind, if you may be discussing your vacations or new purchases. Now is not the time grateful for your own blessings.

Just "be there" for cancer patients and their families. The best help you can provide is inspiration, encouragement and support to the patient, the caregiver and their immediate family. It will form a lasting relationship and your rewards will be immeasurable!


Anonymous said...

Having someone bring over a meal is the best thing anyone who wants to help, can ever do.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to that telephone ringing as well. It absolutely drove me crazy while trying to get some much needed rest.
I could not just unplug the darn thing as I was awaiting important calls from family members.

Anonymous said...

Your honesty is very much appreciated with regards to this subject. I will definitely follow your suggestions as I travel with my friend on her cancer journey.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I'm off to get a card right away. A very close friend is now dealing with a cancer diagnosis and as you say, I don't just want to rush in and try to help. Thanks for the heads-up.