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Guest Post: What Do You Say To A Best Friend Who Has Cancer?

Published: October 11, 2021 | Last Updated: October 11, 2021 By | 11 Replies Continue Reading
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Having a friend who has cancer can be shocking, leaving you wondering how to handle your friendship with kindness and sensitivity.

By Judy Kirkwood*

My only clue was that my best friend had started detailing that she was eating healthier foods in our almost daily email correspondence. She called on a Wednesday evening to tell me she had breast cancer and was having a mastectomy on Friday.

What? I was so floored that I didn’t know what to say. We had known each other since seventh grade, roughly 50 years. Obviously, she didn’t want to talk about it in detail or she would have let me known earlier. She apologized for waiting but said she didn’t want me to worry. Because she is such a caregiving type of person – she works in the field, providing services to the elderly in subsidized housing – I knew it would have hurt her to think of me agonizing over her diagnosis.

Once I accepted that, it became a challenge to dance around obtaining information about her condition versus offering support and distraction.

We’ve always laughed a lot together and I knew it was important that that not change. While not making fun of having cancer, we were able to squeeze out a few chuckles about being blindsided by life and our bodies – the absurdity of the whole thing. We had spent years worrying about our weight and what we eat as far as calories, but we hadn’t really talked about what kinds of foods provide a brewing ground for cancer: acidic. The ideal body environment is alkaline – in other words, no caffeine, sugar, red meat, poultry or even fish, or dairy. OMG, we were both so bad at chemistry in high school.

It’s also important to share tears as nothing is more detoxifying than a good cry. And we were able to do that – in moderation. It’s hard enough to keep your chin up when you have cancer, so you don’t need your best friend bawling her eyes out as if you’re going to die.

And that’s the biggest issue, isn’t it? Neither one of us wants to leave the other to deal with life on this earth without the support we provide just by being a witness to five decades of mistakes, messes, and blessed moments of joy.

Having watched her mother die of cancer, my BFF was terrified of going through the same horrible demise. I did not know her mom had chemo and radiation after her diagnosis of late-stage cancer and had died anyway, 80-something days later. I wanted my friend to charge into chemo with engines blazing, but she wanted to explore alternative treatments.

That is, of course, her choice. Or, better, in my opinion, is a combination of medical and alternative treatments. All the tests have not been performed yet so I must be patient. It’s not my choice to make.

Her cancer is late stage and aggressive. Again-What? Isn’t our healthcare system set up to catch breast cancer early?

Aren’t we the self-exam generation, following the example of Betty Ford, back in 1974, who had a mastectomy weeks after becoming First Lady?

Haven’t dozens of celebrities brought this home more recently?

But how many of us are actually doing breast self-exams and getting our mammograms? I’ve had a number of women tell me they’d rather not know or that mammograms are as dangerous as cancer. Ladies, we have to get it together.

I don’t know what to say to my friend and she doesn’t know what to say to me, but we’ve never let that stop us from talking to each other before when things were dire. We just keep doing what we’ve been doing – trying our best to love and respect each other. And that is the best approach.

  • Whatever your feelings, listen to your friend. She is the one who needs you now. Get your needs met elsewhere.
  • Stay on the sunny side. Instead of picturing the worst, visualize the best outcome.
  • Reassure your friend that you will always be in her children’s lives if they need a surrogate parent. This is one of the things that troubles moms the most.
  • Pass along success stories, but don’t overwhelm her. Just have a few in your pocket to pull out when you need a little light in the tunnel.
  • We don’t live in the same state, so I can’t cook for her – which would be problematic anyway, since I have very few dishes I can share (eggs mainly). But I will fly out at some point and hang out, doing whatever she needs to be done.
  • Continue the conversation of your lives: laugh, cry, and comment on life just as you always have done. The world doesn’t stop and no one wants to live solely in a world based on cancer.
  • Hope, pray, and have faith that what lies ahead will be no more or less manageable than everything that has gone before: school, parents divorcing, family abuse, times of no money and work, single parenthood, boyfriends and break-ups, children and challenges. Just be there.

Some prior posts on The Friendship Blog about coping with cancer:

* Judy Kirkwood is a writer, editor and wonderful friend. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors (ASJA).

Her post was updated on October 11, 2021.

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Category: Dealing with friends with health and/or emotional problems

Comments (11)

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  1. Brette says:

    It is always hard to know what to say or do in this situation. THanks for the great advice!

  2. Though I never had cancer, my mom got sick with ovarian cancer and then died 3 years later.

    The people I found helped me the most didn’t say anything at all. They just let me feel. The only thing they DID say was that they had no idea what I was feeling, but it’s okay to feel sad, angry, upset, and cry. Those were the ones who I will always hold near and dear to my heart.

    I kind of wrote about that yesterday http://wp.me/p2O04L-5G. It’s all about empathy – some people have it, and some people don’t, but those who do are very special and unique indeed.


    Sunny and Take Back Teal

  3. jacqueline says:

    Judy Kirkwood’s post has really touched me, especially since my dear friend, Lynda, passed away 2 weeks ago from this horrible disease. Lynda had been battling cancer for 15 years. Her positive attitude and strong will to live is what kept her alive through all the cancers, surgeries, and chemo treatments. She refused to believe she was sick, and whenever I was with her, I realized how remarkable and amazing she truly was.

    I phoned Lynda on a regular basis, letting her know I was thinking of her and praying for her, when she was too ill to come to the phone, and I sent her an email every few days, reminding her of how much I loved and missed her.

    I am having a hard time accepting her passing

  4. Irene says:

    Having Been on the Other End

    Having been on the other end, I do wish many of my acquaintances at the time were as wise and intuitive as Judy.

    Submitted by Sheryl
    Transferred from old blog to this one by Irene

  5. Irene says:

    What a Timely Post!

    My BFF found out last week that she has breast cancer again, she battled it in 2007 and had a mastectomy (I hadn’t met her yet). She went into remission until now. This time however, its metastasized to her liver, bones, lungs, and one eye. So it’s stage 4. I was so devastated upon this news and for the first time, I was at a loss for words. I didn’t know what to say, so I just told her that I would always be there for her. She, too, is opting out of traditional chemo and going with natural alternatives. As concerned as I am, I’m supporting her decision. I’m always encouraging her in any way that I possibly can. It still hurts to see her going through this battle for her life. She’s young and has a young family, that pains me the most. 🙁 Thanks for helping me see that I am doing what I can.

    Submitted by Anonymous
    Transferred from old blog to this one by Irene

  6. Irene says:

    I Made A List

    I made a list of things people said that were incredibly stupid during cancer, not because of being pissed off, but to use as a laugh. I think your post and mine (the one above you replied to) illustrate that different people want and need different things, depending on who we are.

    I didn’t have the energy or heart to be mad at people for saying the wrong thing, because I knew people were doing the best they could and saying the best they knew how–which is why I fell back onto humor (that and because it made me feel better). One of my observations is that people sometimes rise to the occasion when faced with hardship, and some people fall to their vulnerabilities. Not just with cancer–with any difficulty. For instance, sometimes smokers (or drink) quit cold turkey when diagnosed, after years of trying, Others smoke more out of fear. Some shallow people start to realize what’s really important in life–people and relationships—others become more shallow and use their fear about losing hair as a smokescreen for their real fear of dying.

    Some people become kinder, some meaner. The only homophobia I experienced in my life came from fellow breast cancer survivors (go figure), There’s just no cookie cutter way people react. My Jewish friend didn’t mind the angel thing when people didn’t realize they were against her religion (she was a very conservative Jew) but she did mind when people ignored her AFTER she had told them about her uncomfortableness.

    You seem like a very sensitive person who works hard to support your friend in a way that she needs to be supported. I have a feeling I’d have been so appreciative of your efforts and that you’d have been one of my favorite people to be with during cancer. For me, I needed the most support when I was done with chemo and I had to trust my body to keep itself cancer free. Someone had told me that the support goes away when your hair starts to grow back, and that was definitely the case in my life. I had the hardest time when people assumed how I felt, “You must be so glad to be done with chemo.” I was not, but I knew plenty of survivors who had a party or celebrated. In my opinion, your needs are not less important because you are the supporter of your friend.

    When I looked into the eyes of those who loved me most, I saw such pain and I felt like the lucky one–because I got to fight the cancer with surgery and chemo, while they had to watch by helplessly as my hair fell out, and my mouth filled with so many sores that my cheeks puffed out, my tongue swelled up and my voice was almost unrecognizable.

    Submitted by Anonymous
    Transferred from old blog to this one by Irene

  7. Irene says:

    Different Strokes

    I’m sorry for what you’ve gone through, with you yourself and your friends who have been sick. I am worried even by saying that I am saying the wrong thing. My intentions are good, though. Your post gave me much to think about.

    I feel like I walk on eggshells with my friends who’ve gone through cancer. I’m always saying the very thing you say you hate: “This is nothing compared to what you’ve gone through.” I say that because my problems are not as big as theirs are, and sometimes one in particular has always acted like I shouldn’t mention my problems since her cancer is so serious (she has small children, so it’s a very scary time for her and her family).

    She has told me many times that there are people who just say the stupidest things to her, she wants to write a book about the stupid things people say to people with cancer. That makes me more insecure about what to say to her. I try hard to be very sensitive. But sometimes I’m sure I make mistakes. I hope she knows I mean well. As for the religious part, I know what you mean about people not respecting atheists not wanting to be told about Jesus, God, etc. I did NOT know that Jews don’t believe in angels, so I learned something else from your comments. I don’t believe in angels, either, but some people I know send around those group email things with angels in them and I hope I have not passed it on to someone Jewish. The angel emails are about friendship,too, though they are kind of cloying in my opinion.

    Anyway, I have learned a lot from you. Thank you and be well.

    Submitted by Anonymous
    Transferred from old blog to this one by Irene

  8. Irene says:

    Different Strokes for Different Folks

    I’m a breast cancer survivor and I’ve had friends who survived and lost friends to cancer. One of my closest is battling her 3rd recurrence. I wanted to be treated like the same person I was before getting sick, not like a victim or sick person.

    I still wanted my friends to need me, otherwise I just felt sicker and less like myself. The last thing that I needed was to be treated like I was the more important person in the relationship. A few of my friends drove me crazy saying things like, “we’ll, this I’d nothing compared to what you’re going through.” That was a reminder of how potentially sick I was.

    Of course, I didn’t want to hear if a friend was having a bad hair day when I was having a no-hair day during chemo, but my friends weren’t that obtuse. I didn’t want my sarcastic, acerbic friends to turn into Pollyanna to start telling me every positive or negative story they heard about breast cancer.

    Breast cancer isn’t just one disease, there ate different types, stages, grades, etiologies. The first thing they tell you is not to compare your cancer to anyone else’s and that the odds can be either side of the statistics.

    Sometimes when people asked me what they could do to help, I couldn’t think of anything, but when they were specific with offers like, “I’d like to come by and clean your bathrooms Tuesday or Wednesday next week.” I was in a better position to accept. I’m atheist and ALL of my friends know this. Offers to pray for me, while I understood came from what the friend thought was helpful, felt disrespectful. I had a Jewish friend, and Jews don’t believe in angels. She felt disrespected when people ignored this after the first time she told them and when they prayed to a Jesus she did not believe in (after she had explained her beliefs). Even when she died, these friends still ignored her wishes.

    There no cookie cutter way to support a cancer patient or survivor. Those who helped me most, respected my boundaries and checked in with me to see what was helpful to ME, rather than what made them feel better. Often times saying less was much more helpful or even say, “I don’t know what to say to be most supportive.”

    My most helpful friends treated me like me and still kept me involved in their lived to the extent they did beforehand. Having cancer taught me that some friends I thought were close couldn’t be there for me in a way I needed, and that some acquaintances were to become better friends. Even when we have cancer, I believe we still have to be friends to our friends. We have to be understanding of our friends boundaries and limitations.

    Submitted by Anonymous
    Transferred from old blog to this one by Irene

  9. Irene says:

    Judith Kirkwood’s Post

    This was a work of art to read. Thank you, Judy. What jumped out at me personally was what you said about not overwhelming a friend with “success stories.” Those kinds of stories can backfire.

    Submitted by Anonymous
    Transferred from old blog to this one by Irene

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