As a close friend of mine is battling cancer for second time, I am reminded of how precarious it is to want to help and not know how. Again, I am in the position of wanting to help but feeling absolutely useless.
In my experience, when someone is diagnosed with cancer, most people do not know what to do. People want to help; they want to be there for their relative or friend, but they don't know how to approach the patient. Friends and family are not sure if they should address the issue directly or wait for the patient to bring it up. No one is ever prepared to watch someone he or she loves go through treatment, side effects, and pain. Most of us are taught not to bring up our pain, fear, or frustrations in polite company. However, cancer is never polite and the patient shouldn't have to be either. If you know that you won't be able to listen to the raw truth about the cancer experience, take the indirect approach. Send "thinking of you" cards. Buy the patient a subscription to a movie service or buy a favorite book series.
Often times the most well-meaning people end up on the sidelines because they don't know how to start a dialog with the patient. Not only is there a fear of over-stepping or saying something stupid, there is also the undeniable fear of cancer itself. My best advice – be honest — say, "I want to help you but I don't know how". Then, listen.
I struggled with helping my mom through cancer, mostly because I am very emotional and empathetic person. I am a sympathetic cry-er. I realized that my reaction wasn't going to help my mom heal – physically or emotionally. She didn't need empathy, as much as she needed open communication. So, I became her cancer coach. She was able to tell me honestly how she felt and when she felt like giving up – but without judgement or my immediate "you can fight this" response. In the end, she knew she had to fight because it was her only option. But knowing this and doing it every day, is something far different. My whole family felt desperate and we could feel it in the awkward silences between us. We struggled to say the right thing and balance positive thinking with realism.
Throughout the years, I've been compiling lists and ideas about how to help the cancer patients' close friends and relatives. However, I found this list and it seems to cover most everything. If you wish to help the patient directly, but neither of you know what to do, read this list. It has some great ideas about how to help without being overbearing.