cancer, cancer everywhere. how can I help?
August 10, 2012 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Two friends affected by cancer: how can I help them given distance and financial restrictions?

My college music prof has prostate cancer. He just finished an intensive round of proton therapy out of his state and is looking at hormone injections for another 15 months, and various other treatments before he's done. He documented the whole proton therapy process via a series of hilariously dark emails. But his wife has Parkinsons, which is often accompanied, in her case, by hallucinations, paranoia and depression. So the person who would be caretaking him isn't able to do much. Neither are particularly old - late 50s? Their kids are not that nearby, and they are in the midwest, while I'm on the east coast. They do seem to have a good support system, but it's a rough situation, and I'm seeing it filtered through his humor! In addition, I'm going to visit my best friend next week after almost two years apart, as her mother has colon cancer, and she (my friend) hasn't wanted any visitors while she's dealing with this, nor has she wanted to come to me. Now she does. I'm wondering what I can do to help or just comfort them, given that I have, essentially, no funds with which do so, and I'm several states away from the former, though as I said I will see the latter next week. (Best friend) is an amazing cook so nothing I could make would be better than anything she'd make, just FYI, though I'd certainly be willing to do that while there.

As an aside, I just finished treatment for skin cancer, though I'll be fine, for which I'm grateful.

So, what can I do for them given the geographical and financial restrictions? I've let them know more than once that I'm available for anything they need.
posted by FlyByDay to Human Relations (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Several dear friends of mine have died of cancer. They liked getting postcards with a quick note and small little no-special-occasion gifts like gorgeous seashells, drawings, photos.

When you're in person: please go over and clean their house. They are tired and worn out and regular chores are most likely getting overlooked. If you're able, offer to climb up a ladder and clean their gutters or wash their windows. You can shovel snow or even wash their car. If they have a cat, change the litter box. If they have a dog, it's probably not getting as much exercise as it did before their illness, so offer to take it out for a long walk.

If you only see them occasionally, you can bring over old issues of a magazine that you subscribe to, for example, if you think they'd be interested. Especially with chemo/radiation treatments you spend a lot of time sitting or waiting and it's nice to have something lightweight to read. Ask if there's any food item they have been craving in particular but don't bring over tons of food unasked because they have probably lost their taste for it.

With one friend who was pretty gutted, financially, by the cancer treatments, I said listen, I was thinking of you and had the impulse to send flowers, and then I thought, flowers are not that helpful -- money is helpful. So let me know if you ever need help and I will wire you money right away. She took me up on my offer twice and confessed that literally no one else was bold enough to say hey, do you need money? Are you going to be short this month?
posted by kate blank at 12:37 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

When my friend got breast cancer I went to the warehouse store and bought HUGE boxes of household staples, a metric ton of toilet paper and paper towels. My thought, "she's not going to want to deal with shopping so I'll stock up the staples for awhile." I'm still getting shit about a giganto box of Bisquick 7 years later.

I love Kate Blank's idea of cleaning and doing chores.

Be easy to talk to. People tip-toe around people with cancer and/or minimize their fear or concerns. Talk about it if they want to talk about it, don't if they don't.

As for your professor, just respond back with amusing emails yourself. You may not be able to help with money, but being a good email writer is a good substitute.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:52 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh HELL yes practical help! Chores, pet care, things of that nature. I am a cancer survivor and I am so grateful to my friends who chipped in for a housecleaning service to come in and do a deep-cleaning, and another particularly sweet friend who fed and watered the kitty girls when I was unexpectedly hospitalized overnight.

If you are up to it and have the skills/strength, maybe offer to sit with the wife and entertain/babysit her while your friend takes a nap or a walk. If he's the main carer on top of all the cancer stuff he's going through, I know he could use a break.

Researching professional help that may be available in your friend's area - if he is eligible for something like disability, in-home care, therapy, a support group or things of that nature, might be something you can do.

Is it possible for you to contact the people who are their local support system (neighbors, friends, place of worship) and get them signed on with Lotsa Helping Hands? This website is a great resource for carers and helpers as it coordinates who does what and when, and lets people who want to help know what is really needed - so that your friend won't get ten casseroles and five bouquets when what he really needs is someone to walk the dog.

And if you can't do anything else, your loving, supportive friendship and company means a LOT.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:53 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Give her a hug. She invited you. That says a lot.

When I came home from the marrow transplant, I wanted nothing more than solitude and to rest. I didn't want to talk about it to anyone. In the early days I appreciated cards: don't send plants unless you know they are welcome. After a while I was able to deal with emails, at my own speed of course. Some people were so freaked out my by having cancer that they never tried to contact me. Even now they are in fear of using the word around me. Ah well. I comfort those I can. Wierd, eh?

My wife was the one who needed the outside support. She thought I might die at any time. I needed tending for a few months. Things are better now, and I am almost normal as far as daily things go. I get out on my own and I can do yardwork, that sort of thing. I have lived on the flat end of the survival curve for years--I'm approaching my 8th year as a marrow transplant survivor. I am an anomoly, the poster boy. I am statistically dead. The lesson here is to not get too freaked out on stats. They may be dismal, but then you never know. Reality is that lots of people die from this stuff: or the stuff they give you to try to keep it at bay. Words take on new meanings for us. My story is one of regaining health, at least in a limited way. You may walk into the opposite situation.

You won't really know how any of this is working for your friend until you talk with her. Knowing how your friend's support group works is important--maybe she's tired, scared, both. Your friend will talk to you about this, so I guess it seems sort of obvious to advise you to take your cues from her. Small things become important. Clean the bathroom, go shopping for her. I dunno. When you get there, ask her.

Best wishes.
posted by mule98J at 12:58 PM on August 10, 2012

what Rosie said (while I was typing)....
posted by mule98J at 12:59 PM on August 10, 2012

Let him know you appreciate his dark humor. Be available to talk. Treat him like a whole person who happens to currently have a problem but at the same time be genuinely considerate about things like lack of energy, a jillion typos and so on.

I was pretty lonely while ill and housebound. I mostly wanted people to talk to me, about normal things, like a normal person. I hated the vacuous pity parties. Don't ask constantly how is he feeling. Instead, give him some reason to momentarily feel good, alive, have a laugh and so on.

In short, give him a little more life in his life.
posted by Michele in California at 4:15 PM on August 10, 2012

Thanks, Michele (and others). That's exactly what I've been doing. I think I'm pretty good at that part, and my friend whose mom is sick has told me several times that I always know exactly what to say. I think it's because I don't shy away from scary things and I don't do vacuous. So yeah, I'm on those things, but thanks for reinforcing that's what people want. But still looking for other things to do for them.
posted by FlyByDay at 4:29 PM on August 10, 2012

My sister has sent articles to my mom related to my dad's health issue. If you think it would be acceptable, you could do research of that type on his behalf. One friend hand-packed medication for me so I could get tiny doses with no dyes, fillers, etc. It became a turning point in my medical crisis to have this one-of-a-kind gift. It was the first winter of my life where I did not end up in the ER in need of serious antibiotics and other drugs. It was literally a gift of life.

Best of luck. I am glad he has such a good friend.
posted by Michele in California at 4:41 PM on August 10, 2012

Music, books & DVDs. I logged a LOT of couch time during the worst of chemo, having new amusements was always appreciated.
posted by deliciae at 11:54 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

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