Strong and Silent

National Cancer Prevention Month offers many opportunities to acknowledge and become educated about the disease, as well as raise funds in support of research and care for the millions impacted by the various types of cancer. Yet no matter how aware of its prevalence we become, it is still devastating when cancer—any cancer—touches the life of a close friend. Knowing that treatment is out of their control can cause feelings of helplessness for both the patient and their friends.

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A friend may not be able to cure cancer, but there is ample research demonstrating that when someone battling the disease receives enough emotional support it can be restorative—particularly by reducing stress levels. Simply having someone there gives the body a greater chance to fight the cancer. This is empowering knowledge for those trying to do everything possible to help a sick friend. Yet there is a balance. Some cancer patients want help in all possible areas. They want emotional support and an opportunity to talk about their feelings. They need help with childcare and meals—especially when going through treatment. They even welcome friends to doctor appointments, asking them to take notes and to offer a less overwhelmed set of ears to listen to treatment options.

It isn’t possible, or even appropriate for a friend to offer all these forms of support. Think about which is the best fit for you and your friend. A good role for an organized, levelheaded friend could be attending doctor appointments. Going along to chemotherapy treatments is also a wonderful way to show support—if it can be done calmly, without becoming faint at the sight of needles or being in a medical setting. Many times, supportive means staying upbeat.

Accompanying treatment sessions is not the only way to show support. If a friend has children, assisting with pick-ups, drop-offs and play dates is thoughtful. Showing support can be as easy as offering to pick up groceries for a friend while ticking off your own shopping list. Some people are better listeners and some are better doers. Each offers important support for a friend coping with cancer.

Bear in mind that each person has a different response to a serious medical diagnosis. Sometimes it’s more difficult to know when not to offer the types of aforementioned support. Many prefer to keep the details of their illness or treatment private. They may reject assistance because they don’t want to be treated as sick or weak. Others worry people may make inappropriate comments or less than helpful suggestions. It is important to respect their decision not to confide their emotions or accept help—even if it is upsetting. In this case, it is best to keep the friendship as normal as possible. Normalcy is the type of support they desire. It might not be the way you imagined helping a friend with a serious medical condition, but support is meant to help the recipient on their own terms.

dr. susan bartell

dr. susan bartell

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally-recognized psychologist and author practicing in Port Washington. She also speaks throughout the country on a wide range of topics to help individuals and groups improve emotional and physical health and life balance.