Coming Alongside Friends With Cancer

Having never smoked, when she got the news she was stage 4 a year ago, everyone tried to support her and her husband, but we all knew her chances of beating it were slim, if nonexistent.

Earlier this week I got word about another good friend who is facing lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, the body’s germ-fighting network. I suppose the good news is he has a great doctor, a leader in treating lymphoma, but this doesn’t make it any less scary.

A neighbor behind me has been fighting metastatic breast cancer for three years now. While she’s holding her own with the help of a cocktail of two chemo agents, sadly, day-by-day she’s losing her hard-fought battle. A few weeks ago she told her husband, “I wonder if I’ll see this coming Christmas.”

Three years ago I lost another great friend to a run-of-the-mill sarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue. A pastor, not as a pastor but as a good friend, often visited me in the hospital during my fight with pancreatic cancer. Only 52, with so much more life to live, he left behind a wife and three teenagers to fend for themselves.

Where does this all end?

Every time I witness another senseless cancer death I go into a funk. Every time someone around me gets told they have cancer, much like many cancer survivors, knowing how hard their cancer road will be I end up reliving my fight with pancreatic cancer. Grief floods me knowing what is ahead for them. With cancer being intensely personal to each of us, do I stand off and remain silent or do I inject myself into their story? I wish I had an easy answer to this question, but I don’t.

Sadly, most often I feel helpless. What can I do? What can I say? Words like, “You’ll beat this.”, seem hollow and pointless. Telling them about the tough recovery from the likely surgery to extract their tumor also seems pointless. Or telling them about the hours they will be spending in the chemo room is pointless as well. They will learn these things in due time. It’s not mine to tell. Perhaps things will go better for them than they did for me. Above all, I avoid telling them about what’s ahead unless they ask me point-blank.

So what do I say? For the most part, words in themselves mean little. Perhaps the best I can do is to listen closely and reflect back to them what they’ve said or could not find the words to say. The sheer terror of cancer leaves many of us speechless and struggling to put words around questions, like “Will I make it?” Or, “What will happen to my family?”

The worst part of trying to help a friend facing cancer is much like a flashback to a long-ago tragic event their cancer reignites my cancer journey. Suddenly it all comes flooding back to me, my hours-long surgery, months of radiation and chemo, followed by complication upon complication. But I need to press through my challenges and be there for them. They need me now as much as I needed them back then.

In all this, I’ve found the one gift I can give them is to simply be there for them. To walk alongside them. To support them. To do something for them they cannot do for themselves. The options are limitless. Take them to a doctor’s appointment or watch their kids while they are there. Go shopping for them. Bring them a meal. Mow their lawn. Get creative. Do what you can.

So next time you hear of a friend embarking on their own cancer journey, use this as a call to action. Say little but do a lot. Be there for them.

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