Most of us will have a brush with cancer some day, whether it’s a friend, family member or our own struggle. And one of the biggest challenges is knowing how to behave when we want to be helpful to others.
Today we will share with you one of the most precious and truly impactful “how to” books we have ever come across. I came across When Cancer Strikes a Friend, by Bonnie E. Draeger. when I stumbled upon the author being interviewed for a podcast.
I was riveted by her story and insights. So much so that I went straight home and ordered a dozen books. (And re-order more whenever I run out.)
I’ve been giving them away ever since, whenever a patient tells me they are trying to find their way around the cancer conundrum: what are the right things to do and say?
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.
How is this book different than similar “how to’s”?
A cancer diagnosis calls upon each of us to think and act much more mindfully. It’s not enough to just impulsively say or do what we think we would want said or done.
This enormous looming change in our lives forces us to share both the burden of the disease and the momentum of recovery. And that can be a good thing if you work with the situation carefully.
So let’s state the challenges clearly:
- 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.)
- Get ready to have your eyes open when you launch into When Cancer Strikes A Friend. It will change much of what you thought you knew about helping a friend or family member with cancer, for the better!
And here’s why Bonnie Draeger’s perspective is such a leap: she was writing this book for several years after surviving her own cancer battle with the help of a friend, Rachael, but then Rachael learned she had cancer and eventually passed.
It’s a very sad but enlightening shift in points of view. And to my knowledge, no one has written about this topic from both sides of the experience.
The book helps us understand things better as the friend, right from the moment we learn of our own loved one’s diagnosis, through preparing to help, to finding the best nitty-gritty everyday help, to creating hope and emotional 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.
Don’t know anyone with cancer?
You will. Cancer is so common that it eventually touches all our lives.
The book 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. Our relationship did not survive intact.
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.
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.
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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