We’ve written before about well-meaning friends who often do or say things to those living with cancer that are unwelcome or otherwise misguided. Is there a good way to address that between friends?
Good question! In this case, knowledge is the key.
Maintaining strong and positive relationships is important during cancer. I would suggest approaching someone who means well—but responds inappropriately – in an honest and sensitive fashion. Initiate a conversation that explores the troublesome area as one of many dilemmas during cancer. You may want to discuss issues common during cancer: communication snafus, the patient’s need for control, the importance of language, difficulties in providing or accepting help during cancer, varying coping styles. Here are a few hints:
Highlight the fact that language is emotionally charged during cancer– whether talking to someone with cancer, or about someone experiencing cancer. In When Cancer Strikes a Friend we offer sample scenarios that introduce appropriate language options.
Discuss the patient-survivor’s need to retain some sense of control. Cancer is the ultimate out-of-control experience. As friends, we must honor our patient-friend’s need to make his or her own decisions about treatment, and the kinds of help he/she is comfortable receiving. When offering our help, we must be willing to accept “no” for an answer.
There’s an emphasis on nutrition for cancer patients and survivors in the book. Why is nutrition important, and how can friends and family members help with that?
First, before bringing any foods always ask if patients have any dietary restrictions or requirements (low residue, high fiber, low fiber, liquid diet, etc.) and ask, “What tastes good today?”
I turned to nutritionist Kristin Kwak and Michael Finkelstein, MD, to provide our readers with the knowledge needed before bringing food to someone with cancer. They explained that nutritional requirements change during cancer and it is important to encourage and provide maximum nutrition to promote good health and healing. For example, because chemotherapy and other cancer treatments break down cells and tissues, the need for protein increases at least two-fold for people with cancer.
This means we should consider bringing meals that include organic, grass-fed beef (lean cuts) and poultry, and that we should select fresh, cold-water deep-sea fish, like wild salmon, halibut, sardines or herring. They also noted that some patients will find eggs and dairy products easiest to consume during cancer.
Of course, we must allow good sense to prevail, even though comfort foods immediately come to mind when someone is sick. Avoid junk foods and foods filled with preservatives, hormones or those high in sugar. (Sugar encourages cell inflammation and oxidation which results in cell breakdown, aging, and deformation.)
Having said this, the occasional chocolate chip cookies or brownies may be appropriate when considered as “gifts of love,” not nutritious food. Try to limit the frequency and amount of these treats, however, and instead consider bringing foods that are high in “phytochemicals, antioxidants, and bioflavonoids.” Translation: structure the meals you bring around plenty of plant-based foods like seasonal, locally grown, colorful whole foods. Again, ask about special dietary needs or restrictions before you bring snacks or dinner!
What do you wish more people knew about how to help individuals living with cancer?
- Small adjustments in the way friends communicate with cancer survivors will go a long way. For example, no survivor wants to hear the pity embedded in “I’m soooooo sorry you’re sick.” Instead try, “I’m sorry you have to go through this.” A second communication tip involves the common greeting, “How are you?” This may require divulging more information than a patient-survivor would like to share. Instead ask, “How are you doing, today?”
- Though well-meaning, it is of little value to say “I’ll do anything. Just call me.” This places all the responsibility upon the patient-friend – what help you’d like to provide and when. Instead offer help that is specific, e.g., “I’m available for carpool help or transportation to chemo on Thursday.” Then, offer to call back in a few days, so patients can consider your offer, or perhaps suggest something else you might do to help.
- Avoid problems by sizing up the situation before offering help. Ask yourself “Will my friend ask for the help she needs?” “Does my friend have a large help network of family, friends, faith or professional communities?” “Does my friend have a gatekeeper, that is someone chosen to communicate his or her needs to others, or to accept and record offers of help?” Then, see if there is a hole in the fabric of support that you can fill.
For more information, visit Friends & Cancer’s website, or check out the book, When Cancer Strikes A Friend. All proceeds from the sale of the book, Draeger told me, “will go to health education and healthcare initiatives for children and families at risk of life threatening illnesses, cancer education, and cancer patient assistance programs.”
Image: Everett Collection via Shutterstock