Helping my friend with Cancer
May 22, 2010 2:53 PM   Subscribe

How do I go about appropriately and respectfully helping my friend with cancer?

A childhood friend of mine was diagnosed with Cancer yesterday, he's 23 years old. I found out since I am somewhat related to him through my stepmother, this is not (as far as I know) very public knowledge yet.

I called him yesterday and they had narrowed it down to two types of cancer, both of which are going to require chemotherapy and radiation; he's talking to his doctor about treatment options on Monday.

I live in Denver, and he's in Upstate NY, but I want to rally our friends and family together to show support for him while he's undergoing these therapies in what's obviously going to be a very difficult time for him. I looked into the american cancer society's website and set up a fundraising page for him.

I'm just thinking of his privacy at this point... I want to start blasting this out all over social networks, and to friends/families emails, but also want to respect his privacy if he doesn't want everyone to know. I have a feeling if I asked, he would say "you don't have to do that," but I really want to set this up for him.

What do you think the appropriate way to approach this is?
posted by pennstatephil to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I know you want to help, and you are a wonderful friend for doing so, but please understand that, first and foremost, this is not your crisis and it's not about you. I know you know that intellectually, but you need to grasp that emotionally. I'm going through cancer myself these days, and I was INTENSELY private about who I told and how I communicated it for the first month, and I was FURIOUS when those early boundaries were broached in terms of communicating the situation to others without my consent (even though the intention was 100% awesomely, lovingly good). It took me about a month of mentally and emotionally computing things before I could even start my blog, then before I let some people know about the blog through some emails, then before I posted anything about it here.

The thing is, it's actually pretty tricky to know how best to communicate the situation with a wider group of people beyond the first couple of tiers of immediate friends/family/coworkers. So ASK your friend if he would like you to help in some specific ways: for example, you can offer to set up a donation page or blog, or you can offer to write a group email to your mutual friends. I don't feel you have any right to do any of that without his explicit consent.

Be prepared for him to say no (or perhaps just maybe). That's his prerogative. This is an intensely overwhelming time -- and part of what makes it so overwhelming is essentially being put in the position of having to manage everyone else's feelings and responses and offers of help. I got SO MANY offers of help, even before I went fully public, that I was literally having panic attacks (like, on the floor crying and screaming) at one point... less because I was worried about the cancer and more because I didn't even know how to help people help me through the cancer.

So if he says no to your offers, he may very well be indicating that he's overwhelmed and needs some breathing space to even sort through what kind of help he needs. In which case, let him know you are available, even if "help" in this case might just mean having a conversation with him down the line in which he sorts out his feelings about what he really needs or wants.

He's not going to have all those answers right now. Your impulse to tell everyone about the situation MUST take a back seat to his needs right now. There will be time enough to tell everyone. Communicate your love and concern and willingness to assist, but let him be in control of what he can control.
posted by scody at 3:26 PM on May 22, 2010 [14 favorites]

The most appropriate way to approach this is to immediately contact the cancer society and tell them that you created that page for him without his permission, and that you'd like it to be removed.

Then, talk to your friend. Ask him whether he'd like help with fundraising. And listen to what he says. If he doesn't want help, even if you think he should want it or is just trying to avoid putting you out, respect that and don't do anything. But going behind someone's back and telling others on the internet about someone's health problems is the antithesis of respect.
posted by decathecting at 3:33 PM on May 22, 2010

Oh, and honestly: if he was diagnosed yesterday, he's in shock right now. Obviously I don't know what kind of cancer he's got, or what the prognosis is, but the fears going through his mind right now are probably along the lines of whether he's going to die, whether treatment will be painful, and (again, depending on the cancer) whether this is going to ruin his appearance and/or his sex life. The single most important thing you can do right now is simply to tell him you love him and will be there for him no matter what. You may even want to hold off on making any specific offers of help for a little while.
posted by scody at 3:53 PM on May 22, 2010

Best answer: Oh, sorry, one more thing: when you talk to him, let him talk. Let him express himself the way he wants to express himself. For example, do not reflexively exhort him to "think positive!" if he's telling you about his fears. Likewise, do not dwell on all the terrible details of his diagnosis if he actually does want to go into positive, problem-solving mode. Again, in this time where so much is out of his control, let him be in control of what he can.
posted by scody at 3:59 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @scody-- best of luck to you. I figured knowing people were behind him would lower his stress, not raise it, but I can certainly see where you're coming from now. I am absolutely planning on doing this with his blessing, but I don't know the right way to approach talking to him about it, which is why I'm asking here. It's obviously very early in this whole thing for him, but when, if ever, is the "right" time to start something like this? And I don't think I'm making this about me... I'm doing the best I can to focus on him and what I can do to let him know his friends and family are behind him in this, without the option of just being able to spend time with him.

@decathecting-- I'm not doing anything behind anyone's back. I set this up just to see what it was all about, and the only one who knows the url is me. You don't know his name, there are plenty of 23 year olds in upstate NY. This is about how to talk to a friend about a difficult subject. But thank you for your post.
posted by pennstatephil at 4:00 PM on May 22, 2010

Response by poster: @scody-- he saw an oncologist a couple weeks ago, so he knew he had some kind of cancer, just not the type. The type is what he just found out yesterday, and he's relieved to at least know what he's dealing with and knowing what's ahead as far as treatments.
And those are excellent points about talking with him. We talked about a little bit of everything, including his health.
posted by pennstatephil at 4:04 PM on May 22, 2010

Best answer: I figured knowing people were behind him would lower his stress, not raise it, but I can certainly see where you're coming from

Yeah, it's a bit of a delicate balance. I don't want to make it sound like messages of love and support aren't wonderful and incredibly helpful in and of themselves, because they certainly are, and I have been blessed with a lot of it. What was hard in those first few weeks was trying to manage all the specific offers/suggestions of What To Do, when I myself had no idea of what to do. Now that I'm a couple of months into it, I have a much better idea of how to help people help me when they offer. But it took some time.

Here's another suggestion. A calendar to manage local volunteers with practical tasks (such as rides to the doctor, bringing food, etc.) might be very helpful once treatment is actually underway. I'm using (please excuse sappy name) Lotsa Helping Hands; maybe something like that would be useful for him?

Anyway, you really are a good friend, and I'm sure he appreciates knowing that you're there for him in any capacity. My best to him.
posted by scody at 4:12 PM on May 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: @scody-- thank you for being such a great resource on this. Again, I wish you well in your fight, and I'll be donating to the ACS in your and my friend's name. Someday, I hope we have the knowledge and technology that no one else has to go through what you and he are experiencing.
posted by pennstatephil at 4:18 PM on May 22, 2010

You know, it's as likely as not that he doesn't want fundraisers or sympathy or undue attention. After weeks or months of hospitals and chemo and drugs and constant questioning, it will probably a relief to have someone he can talk to and NOT have the conversation be about cancer.

So call him up and tell him "hey, let me know if there's any way I can help, and I absolutely mean it". Then change the subject and treat him the same as you normally do.

That's how I'd want it, anyway.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:46 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have just recently been in this situation. One of my best friends who I have known since I high school was diagnosed with cancer last year at the age of 26. She has been incredibly private about it, telling me that when mutual friends who have not been directly told by her have seen her (one works in the hospital she often goes to, others have called / sent texts / run into her on the street) and they give her any kind of condolences she hates it. She doesn't feel that it's anyone's business but her own. I think she doesn't like to feel pitied either, which is how she sees it.

Even with the people that she's very closest to, like myself, she doesn't always discuss it. When I first found out I went into shock, and wasn't sure how I could best help her. I'm still not sure I've been the best support that I could be, but here is what I've found.

1. You don't always have to 'be strong'. You're friend is probably scared and constantly charging in with 'you'll be fine' and positive upbeat statements all the time might undermine their own fears which they have every right to be feeling. Just listen to them whenever they want to talk. And don't interfere when they want space to process their feelings.

2. Living interstate can be great - while you may feel distanced from the day to day activities, visiting you could provide some welcome respite. Whenever my friend came to visit we went out and pretended everything was completely normal, that's just how she wanted it. No cancer talk was the unwritten rule.

3. Visits to where she lived were a different story, having someone keep you company and a shoulder to cry on after doctors visits was the best support I could provide.

I think there's probably a lot more advice I could give, and can't think of now. The general gist of it is let him lead the way. It sounds like you're trying to get in and organize things, but it might be better for you to let him ask for such things.
posted by skauskas at 4:46 PM on May 22, 2010

If you're comfortable with each other, just call and talk every now and then - let him talk to you - have real conversations. Lots of his friends may just disappear somehow while this is going on, and sometimes he might need light conversation and other times he may need to unload or vent.
posted by dilettante at 6:07 PM on May 22, 2010

Best answer: Seconding dilettante.

My SO has terminal cancer. The calls and voices of concern at first can be overwhelming. Let your friend know you're there, but give them space right now. Don't disappear as the months go by. Try to visit eventually, if possible without burdening friend or friend's family. Don't visit during a chemo or radiation cycle. Visiting for a major surgery might be more comforting than you think, even if you're one of many who do.

I've learned that everyone has a different reaction to cancer, including patients and people in patients' lives. And, all cancers are different. Sometimes the cognitive effects are more gut-wrenching than the physical ones. Some cancers are harder to come to terms with than others.

I'd say be a good friend and don't make all your interactions about cancer. Learn what you wish about your friend's cancer, but please don't go overboard.

There's only so much you can do. Your friend has no idea what he wants others to do right now. Being a voice or ear at the other end of the phone is plenty.
posted by vincele at 6:32 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey all, thanks again for your great comments and suggestions, and sharing your stories. I really do appreciate it.
posted by pennstatephil at 8:26 PM on May 22, 2010

Make sure whatever it is you're doing isn't creating a to-do list for your friend. When I had cancer lots of people sent me flowers, which is really nice, but I was in pretty rough shape physically and emotionally and I couldn't really respond. Some people got a bit miffed that I didn't call and thank them. The last thing you need when you're sick is to feel guilty for not being on top of your correspondence, trust me. So whatever you do, don't put your friend in a position where he needs to demonstrate his gratefulness or something.

If you were local I'd have more to tell you. As I say, communication becomes a difficult chore after a while, so being at a distance creates some barriers. Heck, living across town creates barriers.

What he probably needs most is to be taken care of. He needs someone to drive him to appointments, cook his meals, wash his dishes, strip his bed, do his laundry, etc. The best thing anyone can do for someone with cancer is to take care of all the niggly things that take up energy cancer treatment steals from you. Until you become seriously ill, you can't really appreciate how much energy small tasks take up. Not having to do any of these things frees up your energy to go toward feeling reasonably okay.

It's way too soon to ask him if it's okay to plaster this news all over social media. It's his news, and his story. Let him have it.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:59 PM on May 22, 2010

Response by poster: @hildegarde-- thankfully he has family and a wonderful fiancee to help with that day-to-day stuff. And I would never expect anything back from someone who is going through these sorts of treatments, and anyone who is would be very selfish... I'm sorry to hear you had to go through that. The motivation behind this was to be able to give him something he could feel good about in such an unsure time in his life. The only thing I want from him is to get better and live a long, full life.
posted by pennstatephil at 9:14 PM on May 22, 2010

A lot of good responses here and there's not much more that I can add except that once your friend has made his cancer publid, you might be able to quietly start getting donations for gas cards. When my mother had cancer, my Dad had to drive her to a hospital a hour away for chemo and not having to worry about paying for gas helped a lot.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 5:56 AM on May 23, 2010

Scody mentioned something above that brought this thought to mind. The "think positive," ribbon campaigns and whatnot really irk me. So does the language of the "heroism" of "survivors" because, hey, not everyone one "conquers" cancer. You can't just cultivate a positive frame of mind and "win." It's way more complicated than that, and the way we talk about cancer in the US obscures the fact that sometimes there's just nothing that you can do. In those cases forced cheerfulness and optimism can be insidious.

That's just my opinion, and I generally keep it to myself.

Pay close attention to how his perspective develops and changes over time. Maybe the "think positive" doctrine appeals to him. Or, it might turn out that he has a black sense of humor about his illness. Just follow his lead.

I'm not sure about fundraising for his care. Unless he specifically mentions financial burdens, I'd assume that he and his family have it taken care of.
posted by vincele at 6:20 AM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

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