My teenage years are broken up into two distinct parts: before cancer and after cancer. Every memory I have automatically falls into a category in relation to my dad’s diagnosis. I got my driver’s license before cancer, and I graduated high school after cancer. I applied to college before cancer, and I got accepted after cancer. I wish my mind didn’t work this way, but cancer has a way of changing everything.
The one (and only) constant throughout the ups and downs of my dad’s diagnosis, treatment, and death was the love and support my family received. Though we were only teens, my friends managed to take care of me during some of the darkest days of my life. While I’ll never be able to repay them for the gifts they gave me, I can share everything we learned together during this time. If you have a friend whose family member has cancer, these are some of the most important ways to be there when they need you most.
Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find the “right” thing to say.
After my dad got sick, I could tell people felt uncomfortable around me. How do you talk to someone who is dealing with a problem you’ve never faced before? I know people wanted to say something helpful or wise, but those words don’t always exist.
My advice? Be sincere. You don’t have to say something perfect – just say something. Tell your friend you love them. Tell them you’re sorry. Be honest and tell them you don’t know what to say, but that you’re there for them. Some of the most meaningful interactions I had during this awful time were imperfect words spoken with a whole lot of love and good intentions.
Replace, “Let me know if you need anything,” with specific offerings.
My family never took anyone up on the “anything” they offered. However, we did take people up on specific things like rides, meals, and errands. When my dad was in the hospital and one of my friends asked if I wanted baked macaroni & cheese, you better believe I said yes. It was a lot easier to accept this specific suggestion than to reach out and ask for dinner. Take time to consider what your friend might need and proactively offer it, instead of telling them to reach out.
My best friend was the MVP during my dad’s illness, and years later I’m still in awe of the maturity and compassion she showed. On the day my dad died, she texted my mom and I.
“What do you need?”
“Nothing, but thank you.”
“No, seriously. I’m going to the grocery store and then coming over. What do you NEED?”
Fifteen minutes later, she was at our door with an enormous bag of dog food for our pups and a tub of ice cream for me.
Stick by your friend, even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable.
You’ve never been in this situation before, but guess what? Neither has your friend. Being there for someone whose family member has cancer is probably foreign territory for you, but don’t let it scare you away from helping. They’re still the same friend you know and love, and they need you. Stick by their side even when it would be easier to leave.
On that note, show them extra love when things are “back to normal.” Everyone was attentive to me on days when my dad had surgery or times when he was hospitalized, which I was grateful for. However, some of my saddest, loneliest moments came when life around me resumed its normal pace. Reach out to your friend on that random Tuesday to let them know you’re still there, and always will be.
Let them talk about it.
My high school friends loved my dad, and we talked about everything that happened. They knew when he had surgeries and treatments, they knew when his cancer spread, and they knew when he was near the end. Whenever I wanted to talk about what was going on at home, we did. Don’t avoid the subject even if it’s a downer, because sharing can be incredibly cathartic. I remember a few times when someone would say, “This is depressing, let’s change the subject!” and it nearly killed me. Don’t sweep their grief under the rug because it’s ugly.
Six months after my dad passed away, I moved out of state to start college. Even though none of my college friends had met my father, they asked about him and encouraged me to share stories and memories. When my worst fear was forgetting him, they helped me keep his memory alive. Talking made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my grief, and it might help your friend, too.
Respect their boundaries.
This might sound harsh, but it needs to be said: respect what your friend tells you, and don’t assume you’re special or an exception. It was incredibly frustrating when I told friends I couldn’t do something and I still heard guilt-inducing things like, “Are you sure you can’t?” Yes, I’m sure. I shouldn’t have to tell you twice that I have more important things going on at home.
If your friend says no visitors, don’t drop by. If they ask people not to call, don’t. Even if you’re their very best friend or “practically family,” respect boundaries. You might not understand why they’re asking for space, but give it to them anyway.
Cancer sucks, and there’s no perfect, step-by-step guide to handling it. If your friend is dealing with a loved one’s diagnosis, be the best possible friend you can be. Give them all the love you can, and then give them a little more. Cancer has the power to make the world feel really dark, but your friendship can offer them a little bit of light.