When Your Friend Has Cancer

When Your Friend Has Cancer
May 17, 2016 Alene Nitzky
friend has cancer

When you find out your friend has cancer, depending on your familiarity or experience with it, you can experience emotions ranging from sadness to mild shock to total freak out.

When they break the news, listen

I got the email on a Thursday afternoon.

“Sorry I’ve been out of touch, and I’m really sorry it takes bad news to get back in touch, but I thought you could relate. On Monday I was diagnosed with (insert cancer) and I start treatment next Monday. I’m doing okay, I don’t feel bad, but as you can imagine it was quite the shock. I’ll just have to take it one day at time and see where this takes me. (insert friend’s spouse’s name) is a lot more upset about it than I am, but I tried to tell her that it will be okay, it’s not that bad, the doctor said I’m going to be fine and we caught it early (insert other excuse/justification for not openly expressing terror and shock and  admitting fear of dying).”

“The doctor told me they have to do more tests and then do some teaching before I start chemo and I need to change my schedule around and tell my boss. I told a few other people and they started telling me I should try cannabis oil and acupuncture and goji berry juice instead, so I guess that was a mistake. I’m not going to tell anyone else unless they can keep it to themselves. The doctor told me I’d have to stop taking my supplements and I don’t really understand why, but I guess I’ll do it.

“The doctor told me that if this doesn’t work after I’m on chemo for four months, they might have to do (insert incredibly invasive and rigorous, risky, life-altering and quality-of- life-reducing treatment), but that would be okay. If the doctor says I have to do it, I’ll have to do it.

“Everyone’s been either really quiet, they don’t know what to say or they say nothing, or they tell me what I should do. They’re either like, ‘My sister had that. It’s no big deal.’ Or, ‘My aunt had that and she died.’

“I’m not too worried, I just have to go do this. He said it could make me tired, so I told my boss and he said it was okay if I missed some work. ” 

Reading between the lines

For me, since I’m a cancer coach and oncology nurse, the news makes me sad but I’m thankful that I do have some skills, knowledge, and experience to be able to help. I’m going to ask if he wants my help before I offer it though.

He’s scared. He’s terrified, and the fact that his wife is terrified too makes him even more terrified. The doctor told him as little as possible, which is a good thing when someone has a bombshell dropped on them, they can only absorb so much information. But he needs a little more information, because he obviously (to me) doesn’t understand some important things. Maybe the doctor mentioned it, but my friend doesn’t remember or didn’t understand the reasoning behind some of the things he said.

The doctor told him they caught it early and that he’s going to be fine. Statistically, that might be true, but there are no guarantees in life and no one person responds to treatment the same way anyone else does. At least the doctor explained that there is always the possibility it might not work, and what would need to be done if it doesn’t. He did leave out the details of what that would entail, but my friend doesn’t need to worry about that right now. It worries me, though, that he said that more extreme step would be a good thing. I have no idea why he said that. But it also worries me that he might not question the doctor if it comes down to that.

He’s reassuring his wife that things will be okay based on what the doctor said. Did the doctor offer any additional services that might help my friend and his wife cope with this news, like a navigator or social worker? It sounds like a navigator gave him some teaching about the chemo, but he didn’t mention anything about offering additional support to them as a couple.

My friend felt the need to tell people he knew, which is up to him, but he didn’t realize how people would react. He got some support and some very unhelpful, even insensitive responses. And there’s always someone who decides they went to medical school overnight, is now an expert on treating cancer, and has an alternative treatment that works, regardless of what they know about my friend’s cancer.

My friend doesn’t understand why the doctor told him to stop taking his supplements, and that’s important. They might have had compounds that interact with or counteract the chemotherapy. Antioxidants, for example, are not recommended during chemo because they work against what the chemo is trying to do. You want oxidative stress to kill cancer cells. Some medications or herbs can actually make the chemotherapy less effective or can result in additional toxicity that can be dangerous.

My friend was told he’d be tired, but it doesn’t sound like he’s aware that his immune system will be weak from chemo, so he’ll be more susceptible to infections and colds and other illnesses around the workplace, or that he’ll be more tired because he’ll be anemic on the chemotherapy. He needs to know this, to be prepared for this when it becomes an issue after he starts treatment.

Cancer Harbors allows the person with cancer, and their close family members and caregivers, to fill in the missing information, fill the gaps in care to more easily get through the process of treatment and recover afterward, or in the case of advanced cancer, have better quality of life with ongoing treatment. Here are more ways you can help the person in your life with cancer. And you can always give Cancer Harbors as a gift that will last a lifetime.

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