Supporting Friends and Family through their Cancer Journey

I’m not sure which is more painful, fighting your own cancer battle or supporting a loved one through it. I’ve been on both sides of the fence and still cannot answer that question. Support for me came in a variety of forms and in varying degrees from virtual strangers on internet message boards, acquaintances, co-workers, friends, and family. Upon my initial diagnosis, I received notes, gifts, and expressions of support from so many people that I often felt overwhelmed and will be forever grateful. One of my co-workers gave me an ice cream maker with a note saying “Life is short, eat ice cream for breakfast.”, and I heeded that advice very seriously. An out-of-state friend, who is a breast cancer survivor, sent me a bracelet of hope that I’ve since passed on to another woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t need it anymore, but she did. Many friends showed me support through their presence. For example, my boss went with me to my first appointment with my oncologist, so that I didn’t go alone. She knew I wouldn’t ask anyone for help or to go with me. Friends took me to and from surgeries and occasionally sat with me through hours of chemotherapy. My dad was also a tremendous source of support and oftentimes would meet me at the chemo center with trail mix in hand. These are the things you remember through the fog. 

I also remember the friends who had a hard time with my diagnosis and quietly, albeit temporarily, disappeared. I think my mom had a hard time with my diagnosis too. She blamed herself, even though it’s not her fault we both have a BRCA1 gene mutation. I think seeing her daughter ‘sick’ was more than she could bear, so she would cope by supporting me at an arm’s length. I would have chemotherapy on a Thursday, then she would call me over the weekend and ask rhetorically how I was doing, almost answering before I could with “You’re fine, right?  I keep telling people who ask about you that you’re fine!” Sure, I was fine. I suppose we’re all human and have our limitations, and that’s okay. I learned quickly which friend would cry empathetically with me and which one would playfully tell me to just suck it up and let’s go for a drink. I loved and needed both of them and still do. I’m fortunate to have a large circle of friends, even if at the end of the day you’re alone with your thoughts. My relationships with co-workers, friends, and family made a difficult time more tolerable. Through my cancer journey, I learned to be more empathetic towards people with ‘real problems’, those fighting battles just to get through their day.

I have had several friends call on me for support or guidance with their own scares, or asking for advice on how to support one of their friends. I can only offer what helped me, and there is no best way.   Sometimes I overextend myself to help others because I cannot imagine anyone going through such a scary situation alone.  Admittedly though, I could probably do a better job of being there for my mom, who has metastatic breast cancer. My father does his best to keep my mom from getting depressed about her situation, and sometimes that can be overwhelming for him. I need to and will do better for them, but as I said before, I suppose we’re all human and have our limitations, and that’s okay.

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