What Your Friends and Family With Cancer Want You to Know

October 26, 2007 by  
Filed under CANCER

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I met my friend M. while she was doing an undergraduate summer internship in a cancer research at the university where I worked. A year later, she joined my school as a PhD student and I trained her when she did a research rotation in my laboratory. About this time last year, she had a night on the town cut short by sudden, uncontrollable bleeding. She went home feeling pretty sick, and later that night, her boyfriend rushed her to the emergency room. Later on that week, she was told that that she had cancer.

We were friends — not best friends, but close enough where we regularly shared stories about our wacky families and our mutual fear that a life at the bench might not be for us, met for lunch, and watched basketball games when we could. In the months that followed, we got a lot closer. I visited her in her emergency hospitalizations, helped her sort through the business of hospital billing, and drove her to her specialist appointments four hours away at Johns Hopkins University. We even ended up being interviewed for a “Dateline” special together for a documentary on cancer patients!

In the time that she wasn’t in the hospital or at home recovering from procedures, we spent a lot of time talking. She told me all about how she wanted her life to be as normal as possible, so whenever I called her, we talked about the most mundane things like the latest gossip about our coworkers and the quirks about our bosses.

The thing that she didn’t know was that it was actually really hard for me to act like things were normal. I didn’t know why, but sometimes the prospect of talking to her was sometimes really daunting for me. Sometimes I wouldn’t respond to her email and phone calls right away. I hated it because I wanted to be a good friend to her, but I didn’t know how to deal with what I was feeling. I’m ashamed to say that the reason was that I just felt uncomfortable being reminded with the fact that she had cancer — and it could have been me!

The fine folks at Awareness Always recently pointed to a 2005 story in Time magazine entitled How to Talk to a Friend With Cancer. It was an interview with Lori Hope, a cancer patient while she was promoting her book, Help Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know.

I was particularly struck by the following question:

Q: Why do you think so many of us feel tongue-tied and awkward around cancer patients?

A: You are confronted with the possibility of death, and you are afraid. And, in a way, you are relieved it’s not you. It brings up so many fears.”

I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t the friend that I could have been to her during that time, but reading this helped me realize that this is apparently a common reaction. Read the article if you get a chance — it’s an enlightening read.

By the way, my friend’s okay now and back in school full-time. Also, Awareness Always has some really neat jewelery on sale, including this Daphne bracelet. A huge percent of the profits go to charity, so check them out!


For my readers who have recently known someone close who have been diagnosed with cancer — how did you handle the news, and how did you deal with your own feelings during the more difficult times? I’m curious to hear your stories — click on the “Submit your Story” tab or leave it in the comments!1

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10 Responses to “What Your Friends and Family With Cancer Want You to Know”
  1. Eyeliss says:

    This is very valuable article.
    Thank you so much

  2. Hi,

    I have just created a blog www.pinkribbonandme.co.uk for a friend suffering from breast cancer and how I handled it was to find a way that I could help. That may mean driving her to the hospital, getting some shopping, creating a blog or whatever she needs at the time!

    I agree with you entirely, its an uncomfortable subject plus as you say it could quite easily be you thats diagnosed.

    What I have noticed over the months is just like your friend, she prefers to carry on as normal as possible which to me at least is commendable.

    Personally I have moments when it affects me (it can be quite upsetting at times) and I’ll find somewhere else to be until the moment passes.

    I think in this situation, when you know there is a higher than average chance that the person could die. Thats what freaks you out. It’s the knowing part…..

  3. Hi Richard,

    You brought up a good point — everyone’s different. I think you’re spot-on in your observation that many people distance themselves from anything reminiscent of their own mortality. It’s probably a direct contributor to all those awkward silences.

    Coincidentally, I read your comment today after coming back from an job interview to be a cancer epidemiologist. The interview director mentioned that interpersonal relations were almost as important as an educational background in genetics because this position requires a “sixth sense” on how to approach patients and families about enrolling in longitudinal studies, sensitive to the fact that not everyone wants to talk about their diagnosis.

    Thanks for sharing — you’ll be in my thoughts!

  4. Richard Collinson says:

    Im May 2006 I was diagonalised with stomach cancer and later, after it had spread to my liver and latterly my lungs, with terminal cancer. I am very much aware that many people found it difficult to talk to me at first. probably because it brought thoughts of their own mortality, and also because no-one really knows what to say – “Sorry you’re dyeing” doesn’t really seem to cut it very well!

    But I have been as open as possible with friends and family and have always addressed the subject myself – this seems to be a great relief as once I’m talking then it’s easy for them to talk. And I need the comfort and support of my friends and I am most fortunate to have that.

    But people are different – whilst I want (and need) to talk others don’t. I was in the clinic the other day and sitting next to a man who had exactly my cancer but about 3 or 4 months behind me. I started talking about our mutal cancers and became aware that he didn’t want to talk about it – as far as he was concerned it WASN’T HAPPENING.

    So be careful, but if you friend or relative with cancer wants to talk then talk! You’ll both feel better. And never say “Oh I feel ill too!”

  5. Laura and Kathylynn — I’m glad that you found the article helpful. I know I wish I’d stumbled upon the interview earlier!

  6. kathylynn says:

    I am actually going through this same thing right now. This article really helped me. Thank you!

  7. Laura says:

    This is truly a helpful post. My Father-in-law passed away from cancer and I wish I’d know these things then.

  8. HART — I totally understand what you mean by “drained.” I was surprised by how much time fellow colleages and coworkers of ours invested in talking about M’s condition but *never actually got around to talking to her during her ordeal.* I think that witnessing that kind first-hand was what really pushed me to accept my own insecurities about sickness and mortality and be there for my friend.

    The special will be aired in 2008, so I’ll keep you posted when I get more information!

  9. It’s good that your friend is okay. (Is that Dateline video floating around?)

    My mother-in-law was diagnosed with Cancer Jan 18/2006 (we think either misdiagnosed or that the side effects from the treatment of her osteoporosis masked the symptoms that would have suggested earlier checkup and treatment) and given 90 days to live. It was a horrible news to hear and she just took early retirement and joined the Wellness Center / Gym and all that. I am just the spouse and the children (my wife and siblings) were there for her and it was quite draining for all of them, I’m sure!

    But – it came to a point where some of us was shut out trying to find out how they feel, what is happening, what’s next etc because they were drained from talking amongst themselves and didn’t want to spend anymore time on this (understandable). Sadly, she passed away May 26, 2006.

    Ultimately, for me, it was my lack of information that help kickstart these “Battling The Monster” series of blogs .. to help people talk about it and get information.

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