How can I help a friend who will be undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for the next few months?
October 25, 2007 8:47 AM   Subscribe

My friend's wife is recovering from breast cancer. They removed the tumor a couple weeks ago, and they found no sign that the cancer had spread to the lymph system. She's expected to make a full recovery. But in order to kill any remaining cancer cells, for the next 2 months she'll be undergoing chemotherapy, and then 1 month of radiation therapy afterwards. What can I do to make life easier and/or lift the spirits of her and her husband?

I'm looking for suggestions for gifts or other things I can do that might be of practical help to both her and her husband. Her basic needs are being met. Her mother is staying with her and cooking meals, shopping, doing laundry, etc. I'm wondering if there's something I can do to help take her mind off the problem, cheer her up, or maybe help with the symptoms in some small way. I'd also like to help my friend (her husband) deal with seeing his wife in pain. I've thought about giving DVDs/books/sudoku, things like that. I'm not sure about her taste in entertainment though.

I'm not sure what the symptoms of her treatment will be, except that she's said she'll lose her hair. Being male, there's a limit to how much I can help with things like that, but I'd like to anticipate other problems and give things that might help. (For example, when a different friend was undergoing treatment that made their hands stiff, I included one of those squeezey stress balls in her care package). Failing that, I'd like to do anything that might cheer them up.

If anyone had any suggestions for something I can do to make life easier or lift the spirits of both husband and wife, I'd really like to hear them! Thanks in advance.
posted by Vorteks to Human Relations (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Buy them dinner for two someplace, so they can go out and be a normal couple. Find out what the wife likes humor wife and get her some funny DVDs or books. My aunt had breast cancer and really enjoyed when I brought her funny stuff.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:51 AM on October 25, 2007

Roll her a joint to combat the nasty radiation sickness. Seriously!
posted by Dayvan_Cowboy at 8:59 AM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

My neighbor had breast cancer that ultimately resulted in a double mastectomy. She made a full recovery and is doing very well now.

We were talking about the process at a neighborhood gathering a while back and she said the best things she recieved were: comedy DVDs/CDs, movie gift cards, cards, flowers (they really brightened up the house), magazines, books, and when people offered to help out with the kids (arranged play-dates, carpooling, time away from the "sick house" so they could just play and not worry about their mom). I don't know if your friend has kids, but having been through a major surgery myself, that last thing was incredibly helpful to us as a family.
posted by cooker girl at 9:02 AM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is rather minor, but I know radiation really dries out people's skin, so some really nice lotions and stuff might be nice. Also, gift certificate to a spa or for a massage would probably be appreciated.
posted by whoaali at 9:03 AM on October 25, 2007

When one of my sister's neighbors had her hair fall out during radiation for breast cancer, my brother-in-law and two other neighbors shaved their heads, and as the patient had a good sense of humor, the whole group went wig shopping (great photos!) and picked up a few new looks for her on their dime, followed by a backyard barbeque.

Since then, some of the neighborhood kids have been "mowing for a cure", and they keep the neighbor up-to-date on how much they have raised on her behalf to "help others recover just as she will".

She *loves* it.
posted by Arch1 at 9:04 AM on October 25, 2007

Remember "chemo brain", people on chemo tend to become forgetful. Realize you may have to repeat things to her, and understand it's part of the process. Just be there for her, and let her know that. You said her mother is taking care of other things for her, but offer to give her a break once in awhile.
posted by 6:1 at 9:10 AM on October 25, 2007

During my husband's protracted bout with cancer, he really appreciated it when friends came around to keep him company. Boredom is a major component of chemo treatment. You don't get to leave your house very much (because you don't feel well, and because you could contract a yucky cold out in public), you can't concentrate well enough to read, television has its limitations, and board games get stale. My husband liked company, he liked it when people would come over and tell their nonsense anecdotes about their daily lives. Many were initially reticent to do so, understandably thinking, "I feel silly telling him about my meaningless day to day stuff, when he is sitting there, suffering from potentially deadly cancer". To the contrary! It was a distraction for him. He liked to hear about the crappy taxi driver, the catty coworker and the bitch at the dry cleaners. My only counsel is to stay mindful of her energy level. Chemo and radiation therapy can be incredibly tiring, and you must be sure not to overstay your welcome. I had to unsubtly push more than one friend out our front door when my husband was overtired and needed to go to bed.
As for presents, maybe a pretty scarf or hat to cover her bald head?
posted by msali at 9:12 AM on October 25, 2007

She's lucky that she'll only be doing a short course, so it won't be nearly as hard on her as it could be. However, the side effects are cumulative, so she'll bounce back less quickly with each treatment. The combination of mounting fatigue with "chemo brain" -- a sort of mental fog affecting concentration and short-term memory -- are to be expected.

Therefore, as the treatments march on, stuff like sudoku may become frustrating. Obviously you don't want to give her progressively dumber entertainment, but consider books of short stories, and DVDs of TV shows.

Visit and take them out (no matter how close she and her mom are, they're going to drive each other a bit nuts) as a couple. Giving them a gift certificate for a restaurant so they can go out alone is great, too, but it's nice to go out with someone who will bring other topics of conversation to the table.

Oh, and a tip to pass along to her husband: pick up some cloth handkerchiefs. Chemo often makes your nose hair fall out too; it's a bit embarrassing in cold weather when your nose drips like a faucet because there's no hair to hold the mucus in.

/not a cancer patient myself, but I've had more than my share of friends go through chemo.
posted by desuetude at 9:21 AM on October 25, 2007

2nding a nice scarf. Wigs are very uncomfortable for many people and that head does get pretty cold. Chemo kills rapidly dividing cells everywhere in the body - thats why your hair falls out and why you have an upset stomach. Another area that it affects is taste - often people have a diminished sense of taste so even favorite foods become very unpalatable. Just something to be aware of.

I'd suggest giving some of your time. A lot of times people avoid people with cancer and it can be very lonely.
posted by Craig at 9:35 AM on October 25, 2007

How about a subscription to Netflix?
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:37 AM on October 25, 2007

When my mom had radiation they were pretty picky about what you were supposed to put on your skin, but her doc will tell her all that. She may have to go a month without putting on a bra with her skin sore and feeling lousy. A really nice cotton/fuzzy/something undershirt would be good. Check the larger web to see what sorts of things are good for folks undergoing radiation treatment.

If her Mom is there that is a bit of an opportunity in a few ways depending on how well all three of them get along. When your friend's wife is feling okay she may want some alone time with your friend to just chill and not be doing the HOW DO YOU FEEL thing so you might have a good role to take the Mom out food shopping or running other errands.

Some people really like to tell you all about their cancer and some people are more private with things like that. Try to figure out which sort your friend's wife is. If she's chattier about it, group activities where she can be around with people having a good time but not have to participate much depending on her energy level [the bbq/mow party idea sounds fun]. If she's more reserved she might enjoy having some private hobby thing that she can enjoy even when she's low energy so she has a thing to do that can politely get her some alone time. My Mom's roommate had a cat when she was going through chemo and even when she didn't really want to be around humans, having a content animal around that needed minimal care (my Mom did litter box stuff and cat food shopping) was a welcome distraction for her.

Based on my Mom's (non-chemo, yes radiation) experience the best things for her were rides to the hospital -- sometimes it's good to mix it up a little and drive and look at things on the way there/home -- brief hang-out time (and being VERY clued in to when someone is trying to push you out the door) and tasty stuff to eat during the times you're feeling up to it. My Mom also liked to have someone managing the glut of cards and flowers she got... she was happy to get them but didn't want to deal with arranging them, storing them, replying to them, etc.
posted by jessamyn at 9:46 AM on October 25, 2007

Your time. See if you can take her to treatments or doctor's appointments...whatever. A friend of mine had brain cancer, and his wife was working three jobs; I filled in as much as I could, and they've never forgotten it. Besides the errand running, and tasking, it's nice to have someone else there to break up what can be monotonous times. It can be a tonic for both of them, your being there.
I had an advanced case of hodgkins myself, having several months of both chemo and radiation. Turns out the chems I took were for breast cancer. Mine, for the most part was a walk in the park; little hair loss (more to rads than chemo...), teeth are fine. Worst thing for me was getting to know, then losing so many others I'd met at the oncologist's.
Also, visits from family and friends will drop off exponentially with time. It's not that they don't care, or have time, but many people have a tough time witnessing someone they care about go through this. My best to all of you.
posted by JABof72 at 9:57 AM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by JimN2TAW at 10:04 AM on October 25, 2007

this past year i went through treatment for breast cancer which included chemo (for four months). i didn't have to go through radiation, but i remember my mom's feelings of annoyance about it. it's really hard to gauge how different people will react to chemo, but being there for any support as she needs it can definitely help. this includes her husband as well because he's dealing with almost as much.

i know when i was going through treatment i didn't really want to be left alone, but i also didn't want people doting on me. i was more concerned with how my partner was holding up, as he had to see me go through it all and never knew how good or bad i actually felt. i think alot of people sort of over look the people dealing with it on the edge.

as for dealing with chemo treatments- hat and scarves or nice. i never wore a wig, but i always had a hat on. a couple of people knitted me some hats, which was very special, but others just got me hats they liked, which was helpful. especially at home, it was great to always have a knit cap around just in case. bandanas were also nice to help regulate body temp.

lotion/aloe is a good idea for both chemo and radiatio. (chemo made my skin dry out terribly to the point of my hands cracking.) i know when my mom went through radiation, she was only allowed to use aloe on the treated area. you might want to get her some little lotions.

but the best thing people could do, echoing some of the people above, was just to treat me relatively normal and tell me what was going on in their life. it's hard to think about this summer when i was going through it all, but life was sort of a vacuum of doctor's appointments, sleeping, and just taking care of myself. i missed hearing about what people were up to.

for stuff during the treatments, crossword puzzles or sudoku were a nice way to pass the time. it was also nice when i brought a friend a long. snacks were good as well. oh, and i would have died without my mint gum. it really helped cut through the bad taste chemo left in my mouth.

sorry this is really rambly, but i've had a lot of experience with it recently. feel free to contact me if you have any other questions.
posted by kendrak at 10:05 AM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ask them to make a list of groceries and to give you the money, and go grocery shopping for 'em. You'd be amazed at how grocery shopping becomes a pain when you're taking care of someone.

Scarves/very soft hats. It's gonna get cold!

Most of all, really, a few home-cooked meals would be amazing for them. Even with the marijuana, my aunt found she got way too high to even care about making food (though she'd eat it if you put it in front of her).

Get her a gift card (do they have those?) for Blockbuster or whatever the local movie rental place is. Netflix is nice, but sometimes you just want to watch a movie Right Now.
posted by Verdandi at 10:14 AM on October 25, 2007

I asked a somewhat related question a while back, so some of those responses might help. I ended up sending both my friend and her mom cookie packagesfrom Mrs. Fields and other comfort foods, which they both claimed to enjoy very much. Your friend and his wife may enjoy something like that as well.
posted by leesh at 10:20 AM on October 25, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for your replies everyone! There's a lot of good stuff in there.

Several people here have suggested scarves/hats. Other people have told me that a woman's hair is too personal, and she would be too self conscious to accept a gift like that from a man. I'm somewhat close to this couple - but not *that* close. Also - my friend and his wife are Japanese, so they might have different cultural feelings about this. Would scarves/hats be a good idea? Are there any women, particularly Japanese women, who can give me any insight into this?
posted by Vorteks at 10:23 AM on October 25, 2007

If you can coordinate a group of friends to visit so there's no drop-off in attention over the course of her treatment, that might be good. When my mom went through chemo she lined up each of her bothers and sisters to "sponsor" a treatment - I think basically she wanted to know that someone would be thinking of her for each of her treatments and knew everyone would want to do something, and that she didn't want my dad doing everything. I sponsored one of the treatments and visited with a care package that had something for each of the senses (lotion, lavender sachet, gum, eye mask, music). I think she really liked listening to comedy during the treatments, something to keep her smiling and her mind off where she was.

I second the suggestions to spend time with your friend, her husband. Spouses and caregivers are like patients themselves, but there can be a lot of stifling because who are you to complain when your wife is going through chemo for God's sake? So giving him someone to vent with about anything would probably be helpful, or spending time with his wife so he can go do something un-cancer-related.

For what it's worth, not everybody loses their hair, so the scarf/hat thing may serve only to be a depressing portent ("Great, another scarf.") of something that doesn't actually happen. You don't say if she had a mastectomy, and this might be too personal, but she might appreciate a gift certificate for a bra fitting. They are done by women who have been trained in how to account for a prosthesis or missing breast and there are very few places that do them or provide sales of the bras. Some are covered by insurance, but not all.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:57 AM on October 25, 2007

I think a scarf is still a good idea. If she does not want to wear it on her head, she could still wear it around her neck or tie it to her purse.
When my godmother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, I got her a soft sweater with long front panels that could be worn several ways. It hurt her too much to lift her arms enough to put them in the sleeves, so she just wore it as a shawl.
Versatile gifts are nice. I bet she will appreciate your gift and want to put it to use somehow.
posted by rmless at 10:58 AM on October 25, 2007

These blankets from Barefoot Dreams are ridiculously soft and light. They've been very well received by people undergoing various kinds of treatments - something to drape over themselves at home, and blankets with any kind of wool or lace get incredibly irritating to sensitive skin. These are seriously awesome. You can get them other places online.
posted by barnone at 11:22 AM on October 25, 2007

I am not Japanese, but from that general part of the world, and a nice silk scarf would not be considered an inappropriate gift. It would be preferable to make it a gift from the both of you if you are married or have a partner.

I am recommending silk because it's soft and warm and a silk scarf is a versatile accessory. I think any woman's wardrobe can use a nice silk scarf.
posted by needled at 12:35 PM on October 25, 2007

Ask them. When my mother-in-law was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, her friends tried to guess what would be the most help. Almost all of them came to the conclusion that they should bring us dessert for our Thanksgiving dinner. (Which was pretty funny, because I am the one who does the desserts, not her. She couldn't even eat at the time. We ended up with almost a dozen different desserts, which my hubby and I gladly ate, but the desserts didn't help her one whit.

One friend asked, though. She was able to tell her that the biggest help would be for her to come and help clean the house. So she and her teenage daughters came and scrubbed the bathrooms. It was one of the most meaningful things done for her during that time.

I know she's got her mother there to help with a lot of stuff, but giving them the opportunity to specify what they'd like may be doubly powerful.
posted by wallaby at 12:52 PM on October 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

I hope your friend's okay. One of the books that helped my cousin during her chemo was Facing the Mirror with Cancer, a guide to minimizing the way chemo affects your appearance. The author, Lori Ovitz, actually gives free makeup lessons for chemo patients from her office at the University of Chicago Hospital. Maybe you could do a little digging (or contact Lori) to find a similar service near your friend?
posted by roger ackroyd at 2:32 PM on October 25, 2007

Seconding Lori Ovitz, who is an amazing woman who gives makeup lessons and wig tips to chemo patients as a full time job for absolutely no salary. She is incredibly kind and emotionally perceptive, and even if you can't visit her, I'm certain she'd have some great suggestions if you contacted her.

As well, her book, Facing the Mirror with Cancer, (linked to above) is an excellent step-by-step, easy-to-follow read.
posted by Lieber Frau at 3:38 PM on October 25, 2007

I've just finished reading a graphic memoir called Cancer Vixen: A True Story whose author (a cartoonist) had gone through exactly what your friend is going through (down to "having her cancer not spreading to the lymph system" bit). It is a very funny and uplifting book that is surprisingly informative too. I suggest you get it as a gift to your friend and her husband.
posted by howiamdifferent at 4:25 PM on October 25, 2007

My mom had a lumpectomy with several months of follow-up radiation (no chemo). One of her main complaints during the radiation was constant dry mouth and occasional queasiness (not to the point of nausea or vomiting). I got her some of these Queasy Drops and she loved them.
posted by Oriole Adams at 6:58 PM on October 25, 2007

For makeup/skin care for chemo patients: Look Good Feel Better "a free, non-medical, brand-neutral, national public service program supported by corporate donors to help women offset appearance-related changes from cancer treatment" runs workshops all over the country. They're nice folks.
posted by desuetude at 7:06 PM on October 25, 2007

I agree that you should ask your friend or the mother. Even if something is culturally appropriate, it may not be something this particular person likes. In my country, flowers are appropriate gifts, but I do not like receiving them. Of course I appreciate the gesture, but I just do not appreciate the flowers. I cringe at the thought of receiving a scarf from anyone.

If there are kids, I agree that doing something nice for them would be awesome. Don't just offer to babysit, have an activity planned out that they cannot resist.
posted by davar at 5:12 AM on October 26, 2007

« Older Brilliant recurring calendar events?   |   Want to modify a simple php script Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.