Tuesday, October 29, 2013

When your best friend has cancer; Long distance love

A few weeks ago, I posted about what to do or say when your best friend learns she has cancer. It seemed that many people read and took those words to heart, and I want to make sure that it is clear: I am speaking from hindsight. Much of this I got wrong. I wasn't really very good at it, but I tried to pay attention and learn from my mistakes. 

When you live five hours away, it's hard to give advice for the everyday. Impossible really. Susan was so lucky to have a strong church community, school community, blogger community, and some really awesome friends who organized her meals, her childcare, and her transportation when needed. She also has the most amazing husband, parents, and in-laws who stepped in. The only things I know about supporting your friend in person when they are in cancer treatment are these:
  • Don't show up sick. Don't show up if you've been sick in the past week. Don't show up if anyone in your house is sick. Germs are the absolute worst thing to bring them.
  • When you want to help - have an idea. Don't call and say, "Let me know what I can do to help." They shouldn't have to think about it. If you have a skill or an opportunity, then step in and do something. Don't put it off on your friend to think up something for you to feel useful.
  • And please - don't say that her problems make you rethink your own life or make you feel badly for having less life threatening problems. It's annoying to be the barometer of how much someone else's life sucks.
If you live five hours away, it's easy to think that you are useless, and that's not true. In fact, it's a little easier for you to be that person with whom your friend can still be "normal." When you aren't seeing the treatment first hand, it's a little easier for you to be the one who can still call and ask for help with your uncontrollable three year old. 

You can be the one who still needs her. And trust me, she needs to still be needed.

It felt selfish to me - to call and cry to her about my problems. What I learned though, was that in crying to her about my problems, she knew that I still saw her as my friend, Susan. Not my friend with cancer. 

Again, it's about living. The more you focus on the cancer with your friend, the more the cancer takes over. She needs people to still be who they were with her so that she can still be herself. If the cancer is terminal, then you both know it's going to take her life in the end - don't let it take her being while she is still here and breathing.

There will be times when you want to know what is going on with her treatment, and that is alright. Tell her that you would like an update when she is ready to give you one. Remember that she needs time to process information from the doctors and to go over it with her family. She will tell you want she needs you to know in her own time.

Living apart doesn't mean that you never see each other though. Get in the car, on a plane, or on a train and get there. This is the one area where I don't recommend trying to maintain the norm. Get there. Every chance you have to see her that you don't take will be time that you regret. Trust me on that one. Get there every single chance that you can. Take your children with you so that they can know her. Spend time with her children so that they can know you. Be friends with her partner - after all, you chose the same person as the bomb diggity. Of course, I already adored Susan's husband, so that last one was easy, but you get the point.

The phone line only goes so far. Make your choices wisely. Sacrifice. Get there. Because if you are life long best friends, then you may be one of the only people she feels like she can stay in her jammies around. She knows that if she needs to nap, you will amuse yourself or wash the dishes. She knows that she doesn't have to be strong around you - that you can and will handle her pain and her sorrow - because it's what you do for each other.

You won't be doing anything for her that she hasn't done for you all along - it's just in the context of cancer now.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

When your best friend has breast cancer

It's October. Tis the season for everything pumpkin and oceans of pink vomited upon every product known to mankind.

It's October. Tis the season for me to think about Susan twice as much everyday and remember the one equation my astrophysicist best friend taught me that I actually understood:


There isn't much that I can add about what you can do during October that hasn't already been said. Susan said it best, of course, and new voices are rising all the time to remind us that living with breast cancer isn't made any easier by us posting the color of our bras on Facebook or not wearing a bra on October 13. 

What I can add is something for the friends of women living with breast cancer. It's something that I've wanted to write about for years now, but I realized that I wasn't really that great at it, and certainly didn't have enough knowledge to fill a book.

I can tell you what I did wrong, and maybe think of something I got right.

In the beginning . . .

One night, your best friend calls you on the phone. She has a three year old and a five month old. You are pregnant with your first child. Conversations had turned from babies to breast cancer over the past week because her mother-in-law had just been diagnosed and was about to start treatment. With you being the child of a breast cancer survivor, she turned to you to answer questions about helping a family member and dealing with telling the children. 

Only this night, she says, "In my internet research about breast cancer, I found something. Something called Inflammatory Breast Cancer." 

"I've never heard of it," I reply.

"I think I have it," she says slowly.

Here's where you can go right or wrong. 

Wrong thing to say, "Oh, Sus. There's no way you have breast cancer. You have no family history. You're breastfeeding. You're only 34. I'm sure it's just mastitis."

No. Don't do that. Don't dismiss a friend's concerns. Don't slide down a tear filled slope of worry with them, but don't dismiss them. EVER.

Right thing to say, "Wow. That must be scaring you. Have you made an appointment to have it checked? Do you need me to go with you?"




After the initial diagnosis . . .

There will be a diagnosis. A diagnosis is not answers. Let me say that again. The diagnosis creates more questions that you can ever imagine. It does NOT provide answers.

Your best friend will tell you the diagnosis even before she has fully processed the news fully herself. There will be silence on the phone. Stay in it. Stay with her.

Wrong thing to do next is pepper her with questions, "What will they do? Is there treatment? Have you told the kids?"

A question you could ask are, "Do you need me to come?" 

Right thing to do next is possibly cry with her. Calmly. It might be to curse. It might be to apologize for saying the wrong thing the day before. You won't know exactly until you - 




The thing is, with a diagnosis of Inflammatory Breast Cancer in particular, everything about what you thought you knew of the future is gone. The appointment you thought would give you answers, the one where you get your diagnosis? That appointment only turns everything into uncertainty.

Living in uncertainty is one of the hardest things to ask someone to do. 

Asking a billion questions of someone living in uncertainty is never helpful. Don't do it.

Something right I learned along the way was to ask in the first couple of minutes of our conversations, "What do you want to talk about? Life or cancer?" 

Most of the time, the answer was "life."

Because really, what your best friend with a new cancer diagnosis wants more than anything? Is to live. 

So do it. Live with her.