In the spring, I lost a dear friend to cancer. She was a beloved mother to two young children as well as a wife, daughter, sister, aunt, friend and cousin. During her three-year fight, we had many conversations about how the people around her were reacting to and coping with her illness.
I thought I was being a good friend via phone calls, texts and mutual tears, but I was never certain that what I was doing and saying was right. So, I decided to help people understand more about a cancer patient’s reality by sharing my friend’s experiences. I asked her to be candid about what helped, what didn’t, and what she really needed during her illness. Here is some of what she told me:
Don’t give me medical advice
I have a team of professionals behind me and I am constantly scouring the internet for ideas on how to prolong my life. Yes, I’ve thought about diet, yes I’ve considered going to Europe for alternative therapies, and yes I’ve consulted a naturopath. Even if you know someone who’s had a miraculous recovery using one of these methods please don’t push them on me unless I ask for your opinion.
Be circumspect around my children
If I have young kids I am probably being very careful about what I tell them, especially if it involves a decision to stop treatment or my end of life care. Don’t assume they know the extent of my illness or my long-term prognosis. Love them, talk with them, let them confide in you but don’t promise them mommy is going to get better and come home soon.
And help them remember me
Soon after I’m gone, the casseroles and calls will stop coming. The house will fall silent and my family will be alone with their loss. I need my friends to help keep me alive in my children’s minds because you knew me in a way my parents and my husband did not. Show them pictures, tell them what I sounded like, what made me angry, how I laughed. Share funny stories. Start a tradition like taking part in the Canadian Cancer Society CIBC Run for the Cure. Help them fundraise so they don’t feel powerless in the face of breast cancer. Wear pink and teach them they can make a difference. Help my legacy be one of hope and progress in the fight against breast cancer.
Remember that it’s not about you
If I choose to stop treatment, try something controversial or pass on a drug trial, don’t tell me I’m making a mistake. Respect my decision and support me even if you disagree with my choice. I know you want the best for me but this is my body, my fight and I have to do what’s right for me.
Please remember, we’re not “in this together”
I am the one with breast cancer. The terror I’m experiencing is very isolating. Cry with me, rage with me, laugh with me but understand that even when I’m surrounded by people, I often feel completely alone. I’m grateful for your support but please don’t be offended when I choose the company of my support group over you.
Just do it
If you see my family struggling with the logistics of treatment, appointments and everyday life please know we will appreciate any help you can give us; a meal, a ride to the hospital, a promise to walk the dogs. Don’t ask me to “let you know” if I need help because I already feel like I’m a burden and I don’t want to ask.
Keep it real
Don’t stop talking about your own problems, no matter how trivial they might seem compared to mine. Sometimes I will hide in my bedroom and feel sorry for myself. Sometimes I will roll my eyes when you complain about your husband and I will wish that was my biggest worry. But other times I will crave the kind of normalcy that comes from chatting with my girlfriends over a glass of wine. Don’t make cancer the focal point of every conversation we have. Don’t let this disease take away my ability to be a friend first, cancer patient second.
CIBC Run for the Cure takes place in more than 50 communities across Canada. Click here to find a location, register, donate or sign-up to volunteer and help change the future of breast cancer.