How to help a friend whose parent was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer?
July 12, 2007 6:13 AM   Subscribe

My friend's mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer yesterday. I'm feeling helpless and frustrated--what can I do besides send flowers? Anything?

I know there have been similar questions in the past, but I'm just feeling really adrift here and could use the hive mind's help. My friend is currently out of town, with her family. Her mother was diagnosed just yesterday and they're waiting for further results to see if she's a good candidate for chemo. If not, she has about a year left.

Obviously my friend is devastated, and by proxy so are all of the rest of us who care about her. We've sent flowers and are having everyone we know pray for her mom, but is there something else we can do? Is feeling helpless just par for the course?

Several of us (including me) have parents who have survived cancer, but none had a prognosis this grim. Have any of you been in this situation? What sort of support would you have liked to get from your friends, if any besides the usual "I'm here if and when you need me"? Are there helpful books (fiction or non-fiction)? Should we just back off?

We just want her to know we love her and are here for her.
posted by leesh to Human Relations (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A lot can happen in a year. Send flowers, let it be known that you're available to help in whatever way-- and then get out of the way. Not only for their benefit, but for yours; you will be a better friend and strogner support if you are not sucked into the moment-by-moment developments and can be a fresh supply of care when your friend really does need you.

Is feeling helpless just par for the course?

Yes. But what you do during these helpless moments defines your potential in life. Use this time to do something productive, no matter what it is. Meditate on loss, futility, and powerlessness, but then spring into action and keep participating in life to the utmost: celebrate and honor both life and death.
posted by hermitosis at 6:21 AM on July 12, 2007

My goodness. I have never been in this exact situation. However, when my oldest, closest friend's dad was diagnosed with cancer there was a day or two before we knew just have bad it was. In that period of time the best thing I could do was check in with him and check in on the family. Make yourself available in every way. As he underwent chemo and they got incredibly busy and harried and exhausted from the appointments, the doctors, the scariness of it all, a bunch of friends and neighborhors made them meals every night and brought them over wrapped in tin foil, ran errands like buying groceries, and just served as a general support system for the emotional stuff as well as the practical everyday stuff. I don't know if this helps at all.
posted by sneakin at 6:23 AM on July 12, 2007

I have been in both your friend's position and yours. I would say feeling helpless is par for the course, and that (as you realize) while your feelings are significant to you . . . they're pretty peripheral to this situation. Frankly, I think that's a large part of feeling helpless here -- your relationship with your friend, and your feelings about it, suddenly pale by comparison. I'm sure others disagree.

I think what you've done is sufficient. What I also appreciated were friends that, while not acting inappropriately, also carried on much as before; this allowed me an outlet and a (false, but nice) perception of normalcy.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:23 AM on July 12, 2007

I think you've answered your own question. Just be there for her and express your love. I can't help but imagine that your emotional support will lend energy and solstice to your friend's family.
posted by michswiss at 6:25 AM on July 12, 2007

This is going to be a rough time for your friend, I'm afraid. My father was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer a almost 7 years ago. There were three months between his diagnosis and the time that he died. I really hope that things work out different for your friend, but 'stage 4' are very scary words when associated with cancer.

Feeling helpless is normal. Be there for your friend as much as you can, but don't constantly ask her how she's doing and if she wants to talk about it. Allow her to continue on as normally as she wants to; give her opportunities to go out to movies or bars or concerts and just relax and exist in that moment. So much of her life will now start to revolve around cancer. Do your best to let her know you're there for her, and that you love her, and then continue on with your lives. If her condition worsens, be there for hugs and be a shoulder to cry on, but don't necessarily expect her to talk.

In fact, I would say don't expect anything from her at all. Be careful to not assume that she's going to feel one way or another. Grief takes many forms, and I know for me personally I didn't cry for months after my dad died. I had become too numb. Simply be there, no matter what she may be doing or how she may be acting.

(on preview: sheesh. this is sortof long and ranty. I hope that you can get some good out of it, though.)
posted by plaingurl at 6:31 AM on July 12, 2007

Solace, not solstice... Grrr.
posted by michswiss at 6:35 AM on July 12, 2007

I think being there in the long term is most important. My boyfriend's mother died from a chronic illness last year. The last 6 months were fraught with hospital trips, nursing home stints, home health aids. It was just my boyfriend, his dad, and me. His sister was there for a few weeks, but lived across the country.

While many people were there for the family after she died, it would have been so helpful to have had more help while she was sick. Some one to pick up groceries, do some light cleaning, make some meals. Your friend's situation may differ... but I can tell you we were thrilled when a neighbor made us a beef stew.
posted by kimdog at 6:35 AM on July 12, 2007

DO NOT back off, unless your friend somehow indicates that you should.

My closest friend's mother died not too long ago after a protracted battle with cancer, and my friend and I have talked a fair amount about what was and wasn't helpful to her when her mother was sick. This was a little different with her, because her mom was in the same city as her. But anyway, what she's said is that it's good to offer to do specific things. Vague offers of help aren't that helpful, because she never knew what the boundaries were, and she worried about asking people to do things that were more involved than their offer had really intended. So make a list of things that might be helpful to your friend, and ask if you can do any of them for her. Does she need groceries? Would it be helpful to cook some stuff and put it in her freezer? Is there anyone who you could call and explain the situation to? (My friend found it really difficult to constantly update her social circle on her mom's situation, so it was helpful to have someone else do the updating.) I think that once you start offering to do specific things, it will be easier for your friend to ask you to do things that you haven't listed.

It is very, very normal to feel helpless in this situation. I think it's even more normal if your own parents are living, because it's a reminder of your parents' mortality.
posted by craichead at 6:43 AM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your friends mother is out of town, so offering to house-sit and helping to take care of some of the day-to-day activities of life so that your friend can spend time with her mother would be appreciated; alternatively, if her mother isn't too far away, offering to spend time helping out with any care for her mother so that the rest of the family can take a break might be good; I had a friend whose father died of lung cancer several years ago, and they asked me to just spend some time with him in the hospital so he wouldn't be alone while they went shopping and such. They were very appreciative that I was able to do so.
posted by TedW at 6:50 AM on July 12, 2007

Everyone is different, but personally, I have really appreciated the friends that don't bring it up everytime they see me and are willing to just sit quietly when I needed another person to just be with me. Don't fill comfortable silences and don't create uncomfortable silences. It's all about timing...

If she has pets, please ask to take care of them/house sit/water plants, etc. I hate to ask people to do things like this because there is no end date (or it is last minute) and it seems very intrusive, so asking in advance (not offering) to do it would be really nice. Offers are made for niceties sake, asking implies that the chore/task has been considered and is within the realm of what that person is willing to do.

Best wishes to their family.
posted by blackkar at 6:56 AM on July 12, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments, everyone. Her mother does live several hours away, and she and her fiance are there now. Another of our friends is their next-door neighbor, so all house-sitting duties are taken care of.

I really appreciate all the kind words and suggestions.
posted by leesh at 7:09 AM on July 12, 2007

Food. Gift baskets of tasty goodies. Go with her flow. When my friends father fell ill (and unfortunately passed away) we made sure her house was clean, her fridge, her plants were OK, and we filled her fridge with yummy food, left luxury soap in her bathroom and freshly laundered pajamas laid out on her bed the day before she returned.

Conversely, when my Mum suddenly passed away from brain cancer my friend dropped everything and dashed all the way from Japan to Australia to support me. I don't know what I would have done without that sacrifice she made. If it comes to that - think about if one of you can go to her. When you set up a life in a new place you often lose contact with the old and can feel very isolated. My friend was there to be the gopher almost - make sure we were fed, taking care of the little things which helped us get through what was a terrible time.
posted by gomichild at 7:22 AM on July 12, 2007

Feeling helpless is par for the course. I've been in your shoes way too many times, including right now. Continued support, thoughts, e-mails will be invaluable to your friend. Agreeing that specific offers of help are much more helpful than vague open-ended offers.

You can look through a zillion threads on AskMe that refer to people being hurt when their family and friends seemingly dropped them during a difficult time -- don't do this. It's a common reaction, backing away from things that scare us, but it's bewildering to the person who's already addled with their own fears.

NCI page on non-small-cell lung cancer, which is the more common type.
posted by desuetude at 7:37 AM on July 12, 2007

I had a friend who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

What his wife and family found helpful was offers of specific help-help with housecleaning, food brought over, stuff like that. I made phone calls for them (and sadly, after my friend passed, set up a computer data sheet for addresses and phone numbers of those who sent condolences. )

Anything you and your friends can do to take the load of mundane tasks off your friend will be quite helpful.

Also see if she will specify one friend to be the contact person. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming to have the phone keep ringing and ringing, and if she can have one person to give info to-requests for specific help, updates on her mom and so forth-that might be really helpful. Or she might prefer contact by email. Ask her what she would like.

Oh, and if your friend should be a little snappish right now, forgive her. She doesn't mean it. Don't take it personally.
posted by konolia at 7:41 AM on July 12, 2007

i have a good friend whose parent was diagnosed with terminal cancer this spring. the parent passed away within a month. other than the obvious support and great ideas already given, if you know the mom and can visit her, the attention paid to her mother will probably mean alot to your friend. i know visits made to my friend dad meant alot to him as some people avoided him because they knew he was terminal.
posted by domino at 7:46 AM on July 12, 2007

My mother died of lung cancer last September - although we knew she was very sick and had a mass in her lung, we had no idea how sick she was. The time between the biopsy and her death was two weeks. The time between the discovery of the mass and her death was about two months and during that time, the most helpful things were done spontaneously. We didn't ask but people just brought over food, took in the garbage cans, fed the cat, sent cards, visited at the hospital, gave hugs. I remember more than once coming back in the evening to my parent's house from the hospital wondering what in the world would we do for dinner, only to find dinner sitting on the counter. If you are able to do these kinds of things, just do them. And I am so sorry for your friend and her family.
posted by bluesky43 at 7:53 AM on July 12, 2007

I agree with the above.

Bring over food - a cooked meal. Don't let their politeness get in the way. When my partner's mom was dying from lung cancer, I'd decline all sorts of help. One of my friends didn't listen to me and told me what time she and her husband were showing up to make dinner.

It was such a relief - we were making so many hard decisions that the easy ones (what should we eat for dinner) were nearly impossible to make, and we were so tired that having someone prepare food for us was wonderful.

Also, ask questions about how you can help and how the treatments are going, if you can. Just listening helps, and so many people will avoid your friend because they don't know what to say.

Also, after her mother passes, give your friend time to grieve, and realize that she won't be feeling better in two months. Just when I stopped being numb from my mom's (and from my partner's mom's) death, everyone thought I should be over it.

It was really rough when I was sad and no one seemed to want to listen to me or distract me. I was expected at that point to snap out of it.

If your friend's mom gets chemo, I had a friend give my partner's mom a super soft hat and scarf my friend knitted. I was really touched by that, and so was my partner's mom. Her head and neck would get cold when her hair fell out, and she could wear this (not scratchy!) and think about me.
posted by ugf at 8:00 AM on July 12, 2007

1. Just be there for your friend. It's awesome that you care.

2. While she's at home, give her a call or drop an email now and then to say "hi, how are you?" From my experience, some of the most overwhelming times in situations like this are when you're at home and actually witnessing your parent being sick. A distraction, or a reminder of your normal life back home, can be wonderful.

3. If you want to actually do things for your friend, I recommend just doing stuff rather than offering a list of possibilities. The latter kind of puts the pressure on your friend to make a request. As for what you should do, that kind of depends on your friend. When my dad was sick, the times I needed stuff were the times when I wasn't home. If people had turned up and cooked me dinner or cleaned for me, it would've just been weird. But I am not your friend, so I wouldn't know what she'd want.

4. If her mother dies, there's not a lot you're going to be able to do besides be there. But being there is super important. If she's a few hours away and you can swing it/handle it, go see her while she's dealing with all of the funerally stuff. Bring her coping mechanisms (alcohol? cigarettes? books? her favorite movies?) and then just hang; you are there because you know her better or in different ways than her family likely does.

Hope that helps.
posted by hought20 at 8:25 AM on July 12, 2007

Be specific in your offers. Don't say, "Do you need anything?" but "Can I help with rides to appointments/do your laundry/get some meals together/sit with her so you can get a break?"

Echoing what other people have said: make sure to let your friend and her family know you're thinking of them even when things seem like they're looking up, or that she's "over" her mom's death. That's when your support will matter the most.

A tip for people making food: EVERYBODY makes tomato-based casseroles. My boyfriend's family was up to their ears in lasagna after his dad's death. Go for something simple but different, if you can. Also, try to go for complete meals. It doesn't matter if your main dish is three packs of cold cuts and some bread; the family will really appreciate not having to think about "what will we eat with this?" or "oh, gee, I guess I have to go buy some more salad dressing."

A GREAT resource, if they're willing to be open about it (or would just like a centralized repository for some well-wishes and updates): CarePages. It's a free service which my family used during my aunt's battle with breast cancer. I found it especially useful because patients, family or anyone else designated by the organizers can use it to spread news about a person's health status and thereby avoid continual "How's she doing? How's she doing?" question-and-answer sessions.

We had people from all over the country post pictures, send greetings, etc. and it became almost a daily ritual to check in on the CarePage, both to see if there were any updates and to hear about other people's lives for a bright spot in the day.
posted by Madamina at 8:27 AM on July 12, 2007

If not, she has about a year left.

Maybe. They thought the same thing when they diagnosed my mom with stage 4 lung cancer; turns out that she only had 30 days because it spread to her liver very quickly.

So, my advice is: be supportive and be prepared to be very supportive on short and unexpected notice. Caring for someone with a potentially terminal illness saps a lot of time and energy, so any assistance there is appreciated. Even if you're out of town, gifts of maid service, food delivery gift certificates and the like can be helpful and appreciated.
posted by solid-one-love at 8:28 AM on July 12, 2007

Unfortunately, like solid-one-love I had a similar experience. They gave my godmother about a year, she lasted 12 days. I really, really appreciated my friends saying: "You know that I'm here for you" and then carrying on as if everything was normal (both before and after her death). And even better, when I was out for drinks with them and suddenly burst into tears, they wrapped their arms around me for a brief hug and then, again, back to normal. I really needed normal. I wish your friend and her mother the best.
posted by meerkatty at 8:55 AM on July 12, 2007

If they are going to be spending a lot of time in hospitals, consider sending a big basket of snacks- crackers, cookies, nuts, trail mix, etc. When my Dad was in the hospital, we didn't have much time for proper meals, and some friends provided us with a snack basket. We would just grab a handful of stuff whenever we were leaving home.
posted by kamikazegopher at 9:22 AM on July 12, 2007

I was in a very similar position to your friend two and a half years back: my mother was diagnosed with cancer, which was quickly discovered to be terminal, and she died six months after her diagnosis. I was living 200 miles from her and my dad. If someone is making sure her house is OK (and if this person isn't taking care of hoovering, laundry, etc, when they're not there, maybe you could), stuff like food, as people have said, is important. Maybe you could make sure they have the essentials in their house for when they return from visits, so they don't have to worry about that. Personally, I was at university at the time, so people took notes for me, made sure lecturers were informed, collected results, and things like that, which made life a little easier.

I can only reiterate what everyone else has said about offering to do specific things that you're happy to do. "Is there anything I can do?" is just too vague to think about when there's some serious shit going round your head, plus it smacks of just being a platitude. You get sick of platitudes after a while, even if they're well-meaning.

But yeah, just be accepting. If she doesn't want to talk, don't be offended, and if she does, don't feel bad that you haven't got any solutions, because sadly there aren't any.
posted by terrynutkins at 12:29 PM on July 12, 2007

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