Five ways to help a friend with cancer -- even if it scares the crap out of you
By Kelly Corrigan
I bet you know me. I'm the friend who bought you a really funny birthday card, but when your big day came around I couldn't find it, so I whipped off an e-mail instead. Oh, and when you called, I meant to ask about your mom's knee surgery, but I started blabbing about how I got another freakin' parking ticket. Then I volunteered to bring homemade cookies to the team party and showed up with a box of generic vanilla wafers instead.
In the cosmic accounting books, I'm minus one to just about everyone I know.
So I would have understood if my August 2004 diagnosis of Stage III breast cancer failed to elicit waves of support. But all my pathetic and heartfelt apologies must have paid off, because there I was, floating in a sudden swell of kindness as I stared down a 7-centimeter tumor.
At 36, I was the first runin for most of my friends with the turbocharged Hummer that is cancer. So I went easy on the ones who unintentionally made things worse -- like by asking if my two young daughters were now at increased risk. But for the sake of your friend who has cancer, or may have it someday, let me share some advice. (Names and details have been altered to disguise the identities of the loving and well-meaning, except in the case of my husband, whose name is Edward Lichty and who has already apologized for himself.)
Remember, most of us don't look good in yellow.
Lance Armstrong can trigger feelings of inadequacy in the best of us. Even his heroic name, straight from a Dickens novel, can make a girl feel puny and defenseless. Although I enjoyed reading about his ordeal and all those yellow jerseys after my treatment was over, early mentions of him made me wonder if I really had what it took to conquer the beast, or even if I deserved to win. After all, I'm just a mom who writes a local newspaper column. I don't have the endurance to win the Tour de France -- I can barely get through Pump class down at the Y.
My husband picked up Armstrong's biography while I was in chemo and read it in three extended, obsessive sittings (when he could have been pampering me instead), only lifting his head to make the occasional remark, like: "Boy, Lance had it so much worse than you do. He had to do chemo 5 days in a row." The fact is, Lance Armstrong's legendary fight against testicular cancer relied on a very specific blend of chemotherapy drugs that are as relevant to today's breast cancer patient as a lobotomy. Which brings me to a larger point...
You know, like: "My friend's neighbor's sister had breast cancer 5 years ago and now she kayaks to work and competes in kickboxing!" Every case has elements that make chemo more or less effective, that make surgery more or less imperative, that make survival more or less probable.
Back in the '70s, Marlon Brando delivered the line "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," which is now the motto of all self-respecting mobsters and salesmen -- and is also a good rule of thumb for the friend of the breast cancer patient.
An example of an offer that can't be refused (which is the opposite of saying "Please let me know if there's something I can do") was when my friend Katy sneaked over the week before Halloween to decorate and brought a jack-o'-lantern, a couple bags of Snickers, even fuzzy fake bats. If Katy had called to ask if I needed anything, I probably wouldn't have asked her to carve a pumpkin for me and stretch cobwebs on the bushes. But when what you need is a normal life, it's hard to put it into words. Which is why I loved Katy's gesture -- for the simple reason that it meant my kids didn't have to have a mom who was sick and miss out on Halloween too.
Remember in E.T. when the potted flowers turn brown and die? Cell warfare doesn't leave much time for chores like scrubbing the bathtub or weeding. So where my flower beds used to sing out to me about the exuberance of life, during my treatment they became an unavoidable symbol of decay.
What can I say? Cancer turns everyday things into existential symbols. Dirty laundry, dust bunnies, and empty refrigerators quickly become images of disorder and loss of control. So snip off spent blossoms, water her plants. Drop a bag of groceries on her front porch. If you can swing it cash-wise, send over a housecleaner -- preferably on a chemo day so she has no choice but to accept.
If you're still hesitant to reach out, remember: Simple, even clich, is totally fine. "I'm thinking of you" never gets old. "That cancer doesn't have a chance against you" is empowering. "I'm rooting for you" feels good.
Some of the most fortifying messages were from friends I hadn't seen in forever or people I'd recently met. And I particularly appreciated the cards I got once treatment was well under way and the game started to drag a bit. It took me the better part of a year to get rid of that tumor, and every time I looked up in the stands, even in months 7 and 8, there they were: a handful of devoted fans, on their feet, who weren't leaving until the ref lifted my arm in victory.
Whatever you do, don't let the idea of perfection stop you. Sure, there's a card out there that's just right, but if you can't find it, or you lose it, an e-mail works too. And I promise you, generic vanilla wafers, given with love, taste just like the real thing.