Thursday, November 10, 2011

On supporting a friend with cancer

After my own experiences of cancer diagnosis, treatment and remission, I more or less regularly receive requests from people whose friend, family member or colleague has just been diagnosed asking for advice on how they might best care for them. I thought I would post one of my answers (with permission) in case it is of some benefit to others.
Hi friend,

Good to hear from you, though sorry to hear about this news.

I guess the first thing I'd say, which may actually not sound very helpful at all, is that cancers are very different and the experiences of cancer patients even more diverse, so I would be quite hesitant to extrapolate too much from my own story.

Having said that, it is still possible to say a little more. Grief and suffering come in many forms (even in the same person) and bring with them various needs and opportunities. At times, silence is the best support; at others, the chance to talk to a sympathetic ear; at others, a word of comfort; at others, an act of silent service. In general, I guess I'd suggest that responsiveness is therefore key, being willing to play whatever role will be a blessing to those in need. While at times grief needs space, I suspect it rarely needs absence, so as a start, simply indicating your willingness to be there for them and to grieve with them is probably the best bet. If they have practical needs, then offers of help from trusted friends may well be appreciated (babysitting while parents go to some of the endless appointments these things seem to involve? Doing some housework? Frozen meals? The latter can probably be safely brought without being asked, as long as you stick to any known dietary requirements). Some people may find themselves with little energy for daily tasks like these. Others might throw themselves into them as a distraction and comfort.

Depending how wide and deep the pre-existing support networks of this family are, it may be that they are initially swamped with offers of help and sympathy. If you think this might be the case, you (or someone else) could perform the service of coordinating the practical support (putting together rosters for babysitting or frozen meals, etc.).

Don't neglect the partner of the patient, whose grief is double: grief for their partner's sake and for their own (potential) loss. And depending how old the kids are, they may need extra support from trusted family friends.

Again, depending how well you know them, then make your level and form of contact fit the relationship. If you are not close friends, then make contact through forms that can be ignored or noted and replied to later (email, letter, card, SMS). Only call if you know them well, because they might receiving a string of calls and probably don't want to be having the same conversation with dozens of people.

If my experience is anything to go by, they are likely to find themselves the target of more unsolicited advice than at any time outside of pregnancy. Although I know everyone meant well, I'd suggest keeping any crank miracle cures you've heard of or stories of amazing recoveries to yourself. It is actually not very encouraging to be told about someone's aunt who was cured simply by prayer and faith or someone's grandfather who drank only goji berry juice and lived to 100. Such stories are (a) irresponsible (I'm not a big fan of alternative medicine, nor of purely faith-based healing, for both scientific and theological reasons) and (b) sometimes contain an element of accusation in them ("if only you had enough faith, you too would be healed like my cousin").

Many cancer treatments become complex, and there is often a high volume of information to share with those concerned. One suggestion that a friend made to me (more unsolicited advice from a guy I didn't know well at the time, but of all that I received, almost the only piece of pure gold I got) was that it might be a good idea to set up a blog where interested family and friends can self-medicate on as much or as little information as they wish. This means that rather than having the same conversation fifty times after each appointment, I could simply write out a summary once and post it on the blog, then direct people to the blog. Mine is here (only updated very infrequently now).

I would also suggest keeping your theological comments minimal unless they raise it. I was probably unusual in that I'd just written my 4th year paper on suffering and the problem of evil just weeks before being diagnosed and so was (usually) quite happy to discuss theology with anyone who wanted. But not everyone is in that place, and for many, just retreating into survival mode is all they can handle for a while (once treatment started, my willingness to talk dropped rapidly as I just had little energy for anything).

I could write reams about my experiences of treatment, but here, the specifics of the cancer become most stark and what I say may bear little or no relevance to their situation.

They may or may not find it helpful to meet with other cancer patients, though I suspect that such groups will be available through the hospital, so you probably don't need to worry about that.

Finally, I'd suggest taking this tragedy as an opportunity to reflect upon your own mortality. Our society has hidden death and dying as far from view as possible and here is one place that the gospel truly does have good news (though not always easy news). Of all that I read, wrote and heard during the intense few months after diagnosis, the best was undoubtedly this talk by Stanley Hauerwas. It may or may not be appropriate to share with your friends (that is for you to judge), but it is almost certainly worth an hour of your time (if you can get past his braying cackle and Texan twang).

It hardly needs saying, but when words and wisdom falter, groans are also part of a faithful response to serious illness.

Grace & peace,

PS If you don't mind, I might post my reply (omitting your name and any other identifying details) on my blog since I have been asked this question quite a number of times (not that I mind being asked!) and putting it there will mean I can refer to it in future. Let me know if you'd rather I didn't.


PJtheoLogy said...

Hi Byron. Thanks for this insightful & very personal post. I am teachign a group of potential lay preachers about theodicy this week. I will be sharing the post and mentioning the link. Thanks again & God Bless Peter Lockhart

byron smith said...

Hi Peter, glad you found this helpful. A few more thoughts on theodicies (and why Christians ought to avoid them) can be found in the series I linked to here (or maybe this was the very link you were talking about?).

Jin Russell said...

Hi Byron, this was really helpful for me to read. One of my good friends has recently been diagnosed with a life-changing illness and it's actually been harder to think how to be a Friend to them, not a Doctor.

dissociative said...

Hi Byron,

Hope all your studies are going really well. Thanks so much for this practical help. I've heard very similar words from other Christians who have had serious illness. Must have been very annoying to hear all those 'you must do this' advice.

Thanks for the Hauerwas link too. He recently visited Kangaroo Valley for a holiday as a guest of a friend of mine. I had notice he was coming and preached the worst sermon ever when he came! Still, he was very gracious.

Warm Regards, Andrew Paterson

byron smith said...

Thanks Jin and Andrew.

Jin - sorry to hear about your friend. It may be the case that sometimes (just for a little bit) they may also be keen to ask Dr. Jin a couple of questions, but I'd wait until they ask.

Andrew - I'm sure SH has heard worse in his time! A good reminder that we don't preach in order to gain human approval.

byron smith said...

Guardian: 10 things not to say to someone when they're ill. This was pretty spot on. Including #11 (first comment).

byron smith said...

Guardian: Six stubborn myths about cancer.

byron smith said...

US FDA's list of fake cancer cures.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Having cancer is not a fight or a battle. Amen.

byron smith said...

These are awesome. Empathy cards I would actually consider giving.

byron smith said...

These are awesome. Empathy cards I would actually consider giving.