When Cancer Strikes a Friend

Posted on June 3, 2015 by Dr. Lynda

I recently had the most beautiful 10 days caring for a dear friend who was recovering after major cancer surgery, and I mention it was a beautiful time because it was a time for me to be quiet, present, and joyful for someone else.

Image: beautiful blue morning star flowerI feel we are built to want to reach deep for the best we can find in ourselves, especially when we know we are in a position to lift up another. So I set aside everything I thought I knew about my friend, remained in the moment, and thought of every moment we had together.

He seemed to perk up like a flower in water over time, and we knew we will be together in this.

I say “we” because when a friend, family member, or business partner gets serious cancer, it touches everyone’s lives in different ways. It calls upon each of us to think and act more mindfully, so we all share the burden of the disease and the momentum of recovery.

Here’s the problem: we want to help, yet most of us have no idea what to say or do. The ones who do, are maybe too sure of themselves. (I was that person once.)

Image: roller coaster
Source: ISHARE

Today I’m sharing an amazing book with you that will change much of what you thought you knew about helping a friend or family member with cancer.

It’s called When Cancer Strikes a Friend, by Bonnie E. Draeger.

Bonnie was writing this book for several years (after surviving her own cancer battle) with the help of a friend, Rachael, when Rachael learned she had cancer and eventually passed. The very first paragraph takes you firmly by the hand and shoulders, and guides you into the most amazing, comprehensive 175 pages you could ever read on the subject.

The book takes our experiences as the friend, right from the moment we learn of our own friend’s diagnosis, through preparing to help, to finding the best nitty-gritty everyday help, to creating hope and spiritual care, to preparing for the end of life.

It maps the journey so we can feel good about our communication, presence and moments of shared delight. I’ve never run across something both so beautiful and useful.

You can find the book here on Amazon or better yet, have your local independent bookstore order it for you.

Image: The book cover of When Cancer Strikes a Friend By Bonnie E. Draeger

Don’t know anyone with cancer? It might sit on your bookshelf for months or years until you need it, and then it’s there, in that first terrible hour when you feel the ground shift below your feet, and you have know idea what to do or say. Then, it will remain on your beside for months as a road map for your part of the journey.

Either way, almost all of us will need some coaching on this part of life, and there it will be for you.

Why am I so enthusiastic about this book? I came across this enlightening book about a year too late. I lost my best friend a couple years ago, not to her cancer, but to my failure to do and say the right things during her cancer. She’s fine now, but we are not. When we meet now accidentally, we say the cheerful things, but we used to talk almost every day. I miss her so much.

After reading this book, I know why I lost her: I made every misstep I could possibly have made. When I did reach out to her, I said, “all you need to do is call me and I’ll do anything for you.” Turns out that is not helpful, although it feels like it to the speaker. You’ll learn why in this book. I put off calling or stopping by because I just couldn’t fathom what to say. That is perhaps the biggest mistake many of us make. The book will get you over that dreadful hump. There are so many suggestions in the book about ways to be the best supporter. The person recovering from cancer needs far, far more than our advice and suggestions about how to eat better, take certain vitamins, try to be positive, etc..

What I did with my girlfriend was say to myself repeatedly, “Well, this is what I would want if I had cancer.” That was a recipe for failure from the outset. Of course there was no way I could put myself in her place. But I might have put myself in a place beside her, taking small cues, looking for ways to give her a sense of strength and normalcy. She was not one to share her feelings easily. Now I know I should have just been present with a smile, nurturing her kids a little, fluffing pillows and maybe just gossiping like we did now and then. Sometimes I could have just been normal, imperfect, and silly.

Image: Dr Lynda and Dr Chuck wearing "You gonna eat that?" t-shirts
Source: Dr. Lynda Ulrich

My friend was a strong-willed person and always up-beat. She had a huge family and household to help, all buzzing around her. I didn’t think she needed me making casseroles, folding laundry, getting the kids to soccer practice. Back then, I thought that “doing” something was the best place to help. But she didn’t need me to be a “human doing”. She needed me to be a “human being“.

There are so many missteps to avoid. Aaargh!. If you are going through this, you know what I mean. What to say? What not to say? What can I do? What to expect? How to prepare so we can be solid ground for our friend to stand on? etc, etc.

The friend who just left our house after 10 days recovering will need us all to be better than our old selves. I’ve found that caring for someone who has a sharpened sense of a more fragile future is a constant challenge because it forces me to rise above my own fears and baggage.

Image: Sunflower
Source: Dr. Lynda Ulrich

So now I give this book to patients and friends who are in their own orbit with someone who needs them to learn and grow with them in the experience with cancer. I constantly have about ten copies of this book on hand to give to people just starting this journey.

My copy is the most dog-eared. underlined, starred, and well-worn book I own. (And that’s saying something! I’m a voracious reader and margin writer.)

Just the other day when Dr. Chuck and I had a car ride of about an hour, I grabbed the book on the way out the door and we randomly cracked it open and read various passages just to refresh our memories. It was like an oracle! We read a few things we needed to change that very day in our care for our guest.

So there you have it! I hope you never need this book, but you might! And you will be glad you have it from the very first hour, when cancer strikes a friend.

Stay open, stay curious and stay hopeful!

~ Dr. Lynda

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