POST 50

Do's And Don'ts When Your Friend Is Diagnosed

10/13/2012 08:23 am ET

SPECIAL FROM BetterAfter50

A friend called recently. Se had just learned that another friend of hers was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She could not stop crying after she received the news and had not yet called her friend to offer her…what? What is the right thing to say? What, as a good friend, do you do? When my husband called my friends to tell them that I had a cancer diagnosis (because I could not get through an entire sentence without breaking down into sobs) they felt very much the same way. What do they say? What do they do? Should they stop by? Leave me alone? Talk to me? NOT talk to me?

To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted other than to crawl into bed and wait for the next bit of medical information about my condition to come in. I was completely in self-absorbed mode (totally deserved). I did not think about whether or not I wanted my friends to call, so in hindsight, I can see what a dilemma the situation put them in.

I also found that sometimes, well-meaning friends who did call, said things that irked me. Let’s face it, when you are really raw, it’s easy to be irked.

“You must not allow yourself to be discouraged, YOU MUST LIVE!” One said to me emphatically over the phone.

“Well DUH!” I thought. I didn’t say it, but I wanted to scream it, really loudly, like a 9-year-old: DUH-UH!!!!!!

So now I know you are thinking, "Uh oh. What if I call a sick friend and say the wrong thing? What if they want to say something snarky to me after I think I’ve given them words of encouragement." Or, as my friend with the buddy with pancreatic cancer wondered, “What if I cry when I hear her voice?”

I can only tell you, based on my own feelings what I think might be just the right thing to do. Here is my short list of dos and don’ts:

DON’T call your friend and launch into the tale of how you heard the news, where you were, how you were told and how upset you are. After all, this initial contact with your friend isn’t about you and your feelings, it is about how much you want to support your friend. All of those other details can come later.

DO call your friend and offer your support. You could start the conversation like this: “Oh, Ann! I just heard that you are sick. How are you doing?” What if you cry? It’s not so horrible to cry, as long as you don’t make the conversation about you.

DON’T ask your friend if you can bring a meal or help somehow.

DO bring a meal and help somehow. Don’t ask, just do it. It will be sooo appreciated and your friend will not be put in the position of having to approve or agree to accept the help you want to give. Take all decisions out of his/her hands and just help. Bring a meal, drive kids to school, pick kids up… I had a family who not only picked my daughter up daily to bring her to camp, but they brought her home too. For six weeks. In my book, they are going straight to heaven.

DON’T tell a friend that to regain her good health she must “believe” that she will be healthy. Your friend never believed she would get sick in the first place and this idea of having control over illness by simply thinking that you do also carries the subtext of, you might have caused your own illness with your thoughts to begin with. Nothing like worrying about stray thoughts sabotaging your good health to make you feel totally out of control. I’m not saying that there isn’t a mind/body connection, but let your friend conclude how her thoughts might contribute to making her well.

DO tell your friend that when they are up to it, you would like to stop by. When you do, bring cheerful conversation and treat her as you always have, and not as if you need to speak quietly, somberly or give any indication that you are wondering about whether or not she will live or die. Just be the friend you have always been. While we are all alive, you can assume that that is just how we all want to be. Alive.

When you are sick, people see you differently, but you are still you and you want to be treated the same as always. It is hard to believe you are even in the position you are in. Cancer? ME? Being sick is so thought consuming, that to have friends come along and lift you out of those consuming thoughts even for 30 minutes is really wonderful. It makes you feel almost normal. And normal feels good.

DON’T ask your friend to tell you the whole story about how she found out about her illness. As she processes her experience, I practically guarantee that she will want to tell you anyway. Rehashing traumatic events can help a person process them and it is actually a good thing for her to do.

DO listen. Keep comments such as “Didn’t you know that by smoking you were jeopardizing your health?” to yourself. People need to come to their own conclusions about themselves. You are there to give love and support.

Lastly, DO take your friend to treatments and keep her company. Also, you should know that people going through treatment tend to cry a lot due to, well, the heaviness of it all as well as drugs that just bring it out of you. So, if a crying friend makes you uncomfortable, maybe taking her to treatment isn’t the way to go. But keeping your friend company during treatment is one of the nicest gifts you could ever give. It can be pretty lonely being hooked up to a machine that is pumping chemo drugs into your veins and having someone there to distract you is very helpful.

As I said, I am not an expert. I know only how I felt during the whole thing and someone else could very possibly feel differently about my above points, but I think that as a whole, the dos and don’ts are a good guideline to stick to. As a friend, your role is to support, help and send love. That pretty much sums it up.

So, let’s practice. This is our friend Robin Roberts. She is receiving chemo prior to a bone marrow transplant.


Her resolve, her shock and her strength are pretty apparent. As her friend, you can hear her tell you exactly what she needs. Love. All she wants from us is our love and support. And you, good friend, have plenty of that to give. Please send it.

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