Saturday, March 11, 2006

Support for the Support

Here is an article that I started to write but never did anything with. Hopefully, by posting it, it can be of use to someone, somewhere…

The statistics of the number of people diagnosed each year with cancer is staggering. But another, unconsidered, statistic is the number of friends and family affected by that life changing moment. A lot is written for cancer patients. How to cope, what to change, etc. There is very little support for the support.

When I tell people the story of how I fought and beat cancer, they seem surprised but relieved hearing me describe things so clearly, honestly but also light-heartedly. They say things like “I have always been so afraid to talk about cancer with people, and you take the sting out of it” and “your honesty is refreshing”. This really shows me how much people are still cautious and careful about this disease. How friends and family are unsure of themselves, unsure how to be useful or genuinely helpful and supportive. So they tip toe around what to say and how to say it. While this is very understandable it just compounds the problem of this being a disease that is not talked about, or if it is, then spoken of in whispers.

What I hope to present here today are a couple of ideas and suggestions of what you can do for someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer. That said, each person is different, both you and the cancer patient. Trust yourself and what you know of your friend or loved one to help you decide which of these suggestions to put into action, or how far to take it. Some people are naturally shy and retiring, others very out in the world with their experiences. Respect those differences, and still find a way to be a kind, gentle friend in need.

Here is what you can do:

1) Write them a card. Sometimes it is so hard to know what to say. When someone is first diagnosed they themselves are in shock, and there is no knowing what the results of the tests and treatments will be, which makes it even harder to find appropriate words. And many of the cards out there are either sappy or sad and evasive. But don’t let any of those things stop you from writing a loving card. What I asked for, and what I recommend, is write to them about what they have contributed to your life, how they have made a difference and why you love having them in your life. Everyone loves and needs to hear that and, to be honest, knowing that you make a difference and that your life has impact is the very thing that will have you want to hold on and keep having an impact. Some of my favourite cards are ones that were off beat that captured the joy in life and made we want to keep living. To others they might have seemed irreverent, or inconsiderate or uncaring. To me, it called me forth and demanded that I sit up and pay attention. One special card had a smiley-faced kid and the caption saying, “Joy is where you find it.” Seems an odd card to send to someone facing and fighting cancer. But the caption is true and it helped me to look beyond the pain and details of my situation and focus on what was bringing me joy each day. Gratitude it a powerful healer. So is laughter.

2) Offer to help. But don’t make them have to figure out what help they need. In those moments of crisis and diagnosis and the shock that follows it is hard to know what you might need help with and it is hard to articulate things, not to mention how hard it is to do the asking.
When you offer help, outline some possibilities such as: can I take care of your kids for an afternoon, or can I research the treatment the doctor suggested for you. Don’t be offended if they don’t take you up on it. The might have it covered off by family members, they might be shy or embarrassed, they might not know how to receive. But even your making the offer is a huge gift, whether or not the take you up on it, you are saying you are willing to be there (whatever that looks like) in a more concrete way. Another reason to make suggestions is that if you are not up for certain tasks, you can leave those out. If you aren’t comfortable with certain things, be clear about that. As difficult as it is to say “I would rather…”, your honesty let’s them know it is ok for them to be honest too. It also makes it clear that you mean the other offers you are making. So come to them with a list of what you would be happy to do for them. Maybe it is make dinner for them, maybe it is clean their place while they are in chemotherapy, maybe it is take them to the doctor appointments and take notes. Know about yourself what you are especially good at giving: is it mental (e.g. helping them to research certain topics or talk them through decisions that have to be made), or physical (e.g. hospital visits, picking up groceries, setting up a system for their medication regime), or emotional (e.g. providing a space for them to share how they are feeling or to cry without trying to fix them for instance), or spiritual (e.g. praying, doing ritual, putting your name in prayer circles about town) support.
I had one friend who couldn’t stand to come to the hospital, as she had lost someone to cancer, and the hospital ward held bad memories for her. She supported me in other ways. The type of support you provide also depends on your physical proximity to the person. I sent out emails to my community updating people on what was going on and asking for help. Mostly far away folks could only pray for me, picture healing light around me, send me cards/emails of support and encouragement, send me books, etc. Everything was appreciated.

3) Buy them a book or a deck of cards or a guided visualization CD, or anything else if you are moved to do so. When I got sick a childhood friend of mine, one that I wasn’t in touch with every month let alone every day, sent me a book about breast cancer. My first thought was, “How odd, how does she know what kind of a book I might want on this.” But in the end, it was handy to have a resource right there, and I so appreciated not having to go to the store to buy it, I really didn’t want to be faced with one more decision (that of which book to buy). The other powerful componet about her choice to do this is she had had cancer herself many years before, and so it was very comforting to be reminded that cancer is something you can live through, and not just survive, but thrive. It was a practical gift that said to me “There is help, there is hope, and this is just a part of the richness that is your life.”

4) Be with them. Spend time together. Some people get quite freaked out by cancer. Perhaps they have lost someone to the disease, or perhaps they just don’t know how to be around someone who has it. Things don’t have to be different from how they were before. Take your cues from your friend or loved one. Some people will want to talk about what they are feeling and going through, others want to be distracted from it. Spending time with them can help they pass the long hours between treatments, that they might otherwise fill up with negative or frightening thinking. When I was sick I had friends plan, organize and come on picnics with me, or take me to movies. No one needs more distracting from time to time than someone going through such an intense and mentally and emotionally complicated journey.

5) Make and bring them food. As cliché as it seems, food preparation can be such a burden. For some people the last thing that they have the energy to deal with at a time like this is the little details of life. Like a family who has just had a child, bringing them by a dinner one day, or something they can freeze, etc. Such a practical offering of help can free them up to focus on the important other decisions and challenges of their new situation. If they are someone who lives alone, sharing that meal with them can ease their loneliness, if they are part of a family, it can lessen some of their responsibilities. Always check in about any new dietary restrictions that they have made since diagnosis before bringing something by. Who knows, you might get introduced to some new recipes and new ways of life.

One last word of wisdom I have for you, the support person. Your loved one is looking to you for hope, encouragement, and positive attitudes. You need to keep your spirits up. And sometimes that can be hard under such challenging circumstances. Don’t be afraid to ask for the help that you need. Not from your friend with cancer, but from your network of other friends. Health is a community issue and the more we share the burdens and joys of the journey, the healthier we will all be.


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