How to Handle Your Friend’s Cancer

Mar 26, 2013 at 6am

So, your friend has cancer. Now what?

Man, having cancer is the pits, right? I say this in a familiar sort of way because I assume that at some point, cancer will personally affect you – you'll either get it yourself (welcome to the club, friend-o), or someone you love will be diagnosed.

I think in some ways the latter scenario is emotionally harder to deal with. When you have cancer, your game plan is pretty simple: Follow your doctor's treatment plan, try to stay healthy, and hope for the best. But when you're the friend, partner, or roommate of someone who is diagnosed, what are you supposed to do? The truth is: I don't know. But I have had cancer while I lived with friends, so I have some ideas. Below are some easy-to-follow dos and don'ts.

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Microwave
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Cancer-type01When I was unexpectedly diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 19, I became convinced my tumor grew thanks to rays from a microwave that sat at about ovary level in the kitchen of a house I lived in from third to fourth grade. There must have been radiation coming out of it, obviously!

I became so convinced this was The Truth of My Cancer that I screamed at my mom for retroactively endangering me. Needless to say, I really upset her. I wish I had waited to lose it until after I shared this theory with my doctor, who was basically like, "LOL, Becky. That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard."

The point of this story is: if you get cancer, you get cancer. There is no point in dwelling on the whys of it. You have it, and now all you should focus on is how to beat it. Your objective as the friend of someone with cancer is to be practical, reasonable, and to indulge them – but not to the point where they rant themselves into a crazy person depression spiral.


Talking

Cancer-type02"Oh my god, please tell me more about how your mailman's dog had lumps in his lymph nodes and how you think breast cancer runs on your mom's side of the family but you're not sure and how you totally cried when you heard Tig Notaro's standup special!" said no cancer patient ever. Listening to someone list their medical history is never very interesting, but when you have cancer, it's downright insulting. I honestly can't remember how many people responded to the news of my diagnosis with something in the vein of, "That's so scary! One time I …." Let me stop you right there, babe. I don't care right now. I have cancer. This is about me. My cancer. Mine.

Look, I can understand the desire to relate to someone else's tragedy. I think for the most part this compulsion is rooted in empathy and is a very human way to react. But at the same time, cool your jets, guys. I don't need an awkward, off-the-cuff pep talk. What I need is for you to deliver my rent check to my landlord because I am too tired to walk down the stairs.space

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To-do

Cancer-type03This includes all chore things, such as walking their dog, cleaning their cat's litter box, and stocking the bathroom with toilet paper. If your friend has a car, assume the responsibility of moving it on street cleaning days.

Speaking of cars, if no one you know owns one, get a Zipcar membership pronto. You will be taking your friend to chemo treatments, doctors' appointments, and to the emergency room when their harsh medications coupled with their now-stagnant lifestyle inevitably gives them pneumonia. If your friend is a good person, they will probably feel guilty about these gestures and insist they can take public transit to their appointments. Do not listen to them. Remember that newspaper headline from not too long ago about all the BART station escalators being shut down due to human feces clogging the machinery? I don't think I need to go into why this is so unsavory and unsanitary. So unless your cancer friend has a hazmat suit, they should not be touching anything outside while their immune system is compromised, lest they catch some sort of mutant strand of polio.


Soup

Cancer-type04That's nice you got some pro tips on the benefits of clean eating from a white guy with dreadlocks in a Rainbow Grocery aisle, but do your friend a favor and keep your knowledge to yourself. The oncologist is the only person allowed to give health orders around here. San Franciscans can get a little self-righteous about food, but the reality of cancer is that everything tastes like metal. There were days when my roommate would make me plain pasta with butter like I was five years old. Admittedly, not the healthiest thing to eat, but nobody died. You eat your kale; I'll eat whatever doesn't make me throw up.
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Hangout
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Cancer-type05I think this is a common response from people who maybe don't know the cancer patient very well, or maybe from people who don't know how to handle bad news and immediately do the first dumb thing that comes to mind.

Unless you're romantically involved with a cancer patient and profoundly understand their deep-rooted insecurity about losing their hair, I think shaving your head is way out of line. It basically says, "Hey, ask me about my friend who has cancer!" It's fine if you feel compelled to openly talk about how someone else's trauma affects you, but try your best to make sure the person who is actually experiencing the trauma doesn't see you doing it. It only makes things weird for us sickly people, because now I have to feign appreciation for this selfish act, which takes a lot of energy I don't have right now.

And honestly, going bald is most likely the least of cancer patients' worries. Now, if you could figure out a way to carry the burden of our hemorrhoids grown from antinausea pill-induced constipation, that would be super helpful.

The best way to show your solidarity is to go to your friend's house and watch TV, read, or sit quietly and do nothing. Life is lonely when you're sick, and it's nice to have friends who are willing to just be with you. 

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