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Responding helpfully to an acquaintance who has cancer

April 2009

So our neighbor just, nonchalantly, in an e-mail, told us she has cancer. Kind of ''sorry I didn't back to you, I have cancer. But don't worry about me.'' Our families and kids have done things together but we wouldn't say that we are close friends. We know there are lots of types of cancer - from merely inconvenient to fatal. But we do want to respond genuinely and in a heartfelt way. Again, we know people are different but were hoping to get some advice, maybe from those who have had cancer. What might be a touching, supportive, but non-intrusive way to respond. We're interested in advice of both words and gestures that would be helpful and those that may not. Thanks so much for your responses.


I would treat your aquantence the same way you would a friend. I had a dear friend, who granted, I hardly spoke to over the years but still, she was a longtime friend who held a place in my memory. When she got news of cancer, her need to reach out to those she knew stemmed from, well, if people are going to be talking about me, I'd rather talk to them first. Who can blame her. We'd all rather tell the story our way right?

As a long time friend of hers I sent emails, presents & jokes. Some sent dinners, some sent parties, some took her to lunch, some helped her with childcare (she has 4 kids). You do what you can, she had one lady with no kids that just sent her a baskin robbins gift card for $5 so that her husband could take the kids out the day of her chemo. You do what you can.

Just give with your whole heart, whatever you give she will be grateful. Imagine yourself in her shoes. It's a bad stroke of luck and thats the time you call on your friends, and your acquanitences (who might be friends someday). Best, K


How about an email back, something like: I am so sorry to hear from you about what you are going through. The last thing I want to do is intrude if privacy is what you most need at the moment - but I do want you to know that we care deeply about you. If there is anything you want - a ride to an appointment, company at any point, or a dish of food - please let me know. We are your friends, and we want to help. anon
I experienced a similar situation but it was done in person by the acquaintance who was a neighbor.

She downplayed it as well but we found out it was quite serious and advanced through others. We didn't make any drastic changes to our relationship but we did go out of our way to be warmer, more accommodating and sensitive.

In our neighbor's case, it seemed clear to us that she did not want sympathy but reaching out may have been therapeutic for her.

Perhaps you can find an excuse to reach out in person, even if it does not include discussing the issue. The personal touch may be meaningful to the person. Rick


A friend with cancer told me many people come up and share sloppy, sad stories of everyone else they know who died of cancer. That may be the kind of ''sharing'' your acquaintance wishes to avoid.

You could drop by something like some homemade cornbread (I use the Trader Joe's mix) with a simple card expressing your emotions.

Also, it's nice to think of small concrete ways to help (''Call me if you need a ride to the doctor.'') Or call if you're going to the store and ask if they'd like you to pick up something. LK


I was an oncology nurse for four years and have taken care of family members with cancer, so these would be my suggestions:

First, I think any response that you make to your friend should include the word recovery, i.e., ''If there's anything we can do to support you during your recovery.'' The belief that you think/feel they will heal is potent medicine in itself. Also, I would suggest checking in with them periodically. Everyone pays attention when someone is first diagnosed with cancer, but friends/acquaintances can fall away and back into their busy lives, especially if treatment takes awhile. And, finally, I'd recommend letting them know you care in whatever way seems appropriate-I realize not everyone is comfortable with the L-word, but knowing that you are being thought about, prayed for, still considered to be a valuable member of the community, etc. can go along way towards recovery.

Best wishes for you and your friend. Eloise


My husband was diagnosed with cancer a few years back. Besides telling our families and extremely close friends, we always found it awkward to tell even good friends - how do you bring it up in conversation?! To me, it sounds like your neighbor might be ready to talk about it if she's mentioned it to you. You might think about going over and speaking to her in person and not just responding via e-mail and just let her know that you got her message and that you are concerned and ask if there is any way you can help her out. Maybe offer to watch her kids, bring her dinner if she's too exhausted to cook, run a quick errand or, if she has a lengthy hospital stay, offer to watch her house, water her plants, etc. If you do go speak to her in person, you can also get a sense if she doesn't want to talk about it but then at least she knows that you are there if she needs some assistance.
What an excellent question. I have had cancer and it was very hard to talk about it when people were not expecting to hear what was really going on. I always wanted to tell everyone that things were ok, that we were doing fine. I had a 5 month old when I was diagnosed. My advice is to bring over a meal sometime. Don't ask her if you can, just tell her you made a meal and when can you bring it over? It was hard for me to ask for help but all gestures were greatly appreciated and made things easier for us all. If you are unable to bring over a meal, consider bringing over a bowl of fruit, a fresh bread with cheese, brownies... appreciative mom
I know friends/family close to me w/ cancer, and I really applaud your concern...I have to believe that your acquaintance friend would not have emailed you about her cancer (put it in the email) if she wasn't reaching out a bit. If she wanted to avoid/deny or not bring it up, that is nothing that you just happen to mention in an email. I personally would probably call her or drop her a note - and let her know that you're thinking of her and am sorry to hear about her cancer. Asking her a few questions (not to bombard her) but is she undergoing treatment and when? Can you offer to watch her child and/or bring a meal? Many folks don't like to ask for help. So, if you discover that yes, she is going thru treatment, surgery, etc.. I would drop off a meal or pick up some groceries. Often, this is very overwhelming to the person and so don't expect quick repsonse, though, my gut tells me she mentioned it because she wants to talk, be heard, etc. Good luck - trust your instincts. been there
First, definitely respond. One thing that hurt me was when I would divulge that we were fighting and then a response would not come, or would come with months of delay and a ''sorry we didn't respond sooner!''. Yeah I'm thinking, patient could have passed on by now...

Also, I can tell you that while as you say some cancers end up being mild, getting a cancer diagnosis is a huge kick in the stomach. Even if it is an easy fight you don't know that the day you hear ''cancer'' from the doctor, and you won't know that for quite some time. So I'm sure they are going through a difficult time.

So respond, something heartfelt. It sounds like you know nothing about the situation, so it is hard to offer concrete help. Here are some words ''We are so very sorry to hear about your recent health challenges. We would love to help in some way -- leaving some groceries on the porch in cooler? a homecooked dinner? a ride to a doctor's appointment?''

Usually dinners and groceries are most appropriate when there is a patient home from a big surgery, or when chemo has started. Sometimes a close friend will set up a website to coordinate all the helpers (since that can be a job in itself). In order to be helpful, you really need more information. Just saying ''let me know if I can do anything'', is almost an empty offer since rarely will someone actually take you up on that. Offering very concrete things to do sounds much more sincere. If you find out they are going through chemo or surgery, be very concrete ''I would like to stop by with dinner Tuesday night''.

Also, obviously, respect their privacy if they give signals that they would really prefer that.

Good luck, and as a cancer-affected family, thank you for your concern. :-) -been on the cancer side twice


My husband has had cancer twice and it seemed to me that people either minimized it (oh, wow, that's too bad. let me know if I can do anything, see ya) or "tragedized" it (long stories about people who have beaten it, stories about "fighting" it, etc.) I especially disliked preaching about how important it is to have a great attitude. Fact is, having cancer sucks, not because of the cancer per se (my husband had ZERO symptoms from either cancer and felt perfectly fine until he was diagnosed) but because the treatment is just horrendous. Chemotherapy is like having the worst flu you've ever had in your entire life, about six times in a row. I'm sure there are some people who have a great attitude throughout this - my husband was not one of them. And despite not being a puppy upper throughout, he is totally healthy today (as far as I know). So anyway, speech aside, I would focus on what treatment your neighbor is having, and find out if she/he has a close friend who is organizing meals, childcare, errands, anything she needs. And direct sympathy not for "you're gonna die, you must be freaking out" but for just the really bad luck that drawing the cancer card means. And -- as the spouse -- if there is a spouse in the picture, give him/her your sympathy and support too. It is NO fun to be married to someone who is sick and scared.

Cancer SUX!!!


Having been through cancer myself, along with other family members, I wanted to respond to your question. You are right to find out how you can help. There were many suggestions to drop by with a meal--remember that cancer treatment frequently affects appetite and taste, as well as the ability to eat at all. Unsolicited meals may be helpful for feeding the patient's family, but for the one who is ill, its a good idea to ask what they can eat and what they want. For the longest time, I could only eat root beer popsicles, and a box of these was the perfect gift. Some people find ginger tea helps with nausea, cds of Hawaiian guiar or guided relaxation were perfect healing gifts.

fall down seven times get up eight


I know you've received many words of wonderful advice. I just wanted to add that, as a massage therapist with training in oncology massage, I have been hired by friends of people living with cancer as a gift to those folks and/or their families or caregivers. I work in clinics (the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur) and do hospital-based massage at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. But I also travel to the homes of those undergoing treatment, or see people whose healing requires rest and not a lot of appointments outside the home, other than for doctors, etc. In some cases, I am contracted by friends and family to be available to someone as they need me, depending on their treatment and individual health issues. I love this work.

It is enough -- it is a lot -- to simply say what you feel and ask how you can help, and I love that you are looking for ways to do that. It is great that you care. Jennifer


When I had breast cancer, the thing I hated most was when people would come up to me and say, ''How ARE you,'' as if they saw me first as someone with cancer, and secondly as a friend. I also disliked people telling me I was brave or that they couldn't imagine doing what I was doing.

Of course they could. It sure beats the alternative. So my advice is to see her first as a friend. Another thing I would suggest is to have someone (you or a closer friend) organize people to make and deliver a week or two of meals. This is especially good for people who want to help, but don't know how.

To make things easier during my recovery, I asked a friend to organize two weeks of meals to be delivered to my house. My son, who was 6, loved coming home to a basket on our porch and wondering what treat was in store for us that night. A grateful cancer survivor


Hi! I can relate to the situation. I went through cancer as a young mother with a baby and a toddler. Cancer is hard to bring up in conversation. My diagnosis became more real every time I said it out loud. Also, you never know how other people react. If your friend brought up the subject please react.

You can send a simple note. I got get well cards from people I had never met (husband's colleagues). If you want to talk to your friend focus more on listening and let her do talking. If you actually want to help ask her what she needs and offer something precise. Child care, meal, house cleaning will certainly be helpful. I had a relative who came every Tuesday to clean my kitchen while my kids and I napped. When my toddler woke up she played with her so that I could rest. That was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done to me. Someone else brought regularly a nutritious meal and played with the kids while I ate so I actually had time to eat.

Even though the prognosis would be good cancer diagnosis is always huge and scary. It takes up all the energy one has. Patients don't have energy to call friends and ask for meals or child care or send thank you notes. Please be proactive. It will be appreciated

Been there


Setting up a support network for my mom w/ cancer

Nov 2008

Hi, My 64 yo mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two weeks ago. I live near by but have four small kids and other responsibilites. One of my sisters lives with her but she also has two small chldren and is expecting her third as well. My father passed away 10 years ago. It has become plainly obvious already that neither of us is equipped emotionally or energetically to take on the care of shuttling her to appointments and other stuff. She will be going in for exploratory surgery tomorrow and may then follow through with chemotherapy. Both situations are going to leave her in need of a lot of help. She has a solid group of friends and is also involved with a local ''Red Hat Ladies'' social network. I was wondering if anyone had advice on how we (her children) might put these networks of people best to use in order to lighten the burden that this could potentially have on myself and my one sister who is living with her. It has already become ''too much'' emotionally and has taken a toll on us even before we really get started here which is not a good sign. Thanks in advance, C.


Well, I'm very sorry to hear about your mom. I hope everything goes smoothly for her.

Sounds like she has a good social network besides you and your sister. Ask your mother who in her circle she would like to help her and if it's okay to ask a few people. Private information will soon become VERY public and sometimes it's a shock to the person to realize that her friends are talking about how much she's pooping or something like that!! I would then start emailing or calling her circle and ask if they can help and in what capacity. Please know that everyone can't do every task, what I mean is: people have different talents and strengths and it really helps to know what each person is capable of and what their limits are.

If everyone IS on email then you can set up a Yahoo groups network with everyone who wants to be involved. I did this when a friend was very sick. We set up a calendar (in Yahoo) of regular days that people could visit, do errands, the laundry, take her to appointments, bring meals, bring DVDs and books. etc. It worked beautifully. We also sent out a list of eachothers phone numbers in case we needed to TALK (and programmed them into the cell phones!). We also had a bulletin board in the kitchen where we would write messages to the next person coming about what is needed at the store, or phone messages for our friend, and had emergency numbers on hand. The people who could afford it pooled their money and hired someone to come twice a month to do the heavy cleaning. That felt a load off our shoulders.

We had tons of food at first and soon had to sort that out according to what she felt like eating, WHEN she did. IF she has to take regular meds make sure that someone is in charge of that. Those daily pill holders for the day and evening are really helpful to keep track of what meds need to be taken and when. For pain management she can also try hot pads, and massage. Women's Cancer Research Center in Berkeley might be helpful for more info also.

Make sure there are people coming around who are positive and uplifting. Attitude is really important, though not if it's phony. All the grandchildren will probably be a great encouragement for her too.

I'm sure you will manage it. Lots of luck! anon


Neighbor with colon cancer and 2 young sons

Oct 2008

My neighbor was recently diagnosed with colon cancer. She and her husband have two young sons. Can anyone recommend any books that help explain what their mother is going through? Doesn't have to specifically explain colon cancer, but something along those lines. Thank you in advance. Just want to help


I don't have specific information about children's books about cancer, but can offer two resources for information. Circle of Care in Oakland is a good resource for parents and children experiencing life threatening illness. http://www.ebac.org/programs/circle/services.asp
Cancer Compass has an online message board where you can ask questions and receive answers from other patients, caregivers, and friends. http://www.cancercompass.com/
The information is out there if you know where to look. Susan http://www.cancercompass.com/ Susan
I have two suggestions: 1. Another Morning, by Linda Blachman is a very good book about mothers with cancer. It contains interviews with many mothers who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis at different stages of the disease (some just diagnosed, some having a recurrence, and some dying of cancer). I found the book deeply moving, but also enlightening. 2. The journalist Marjorie Williams recently died of cancer. She chronicled her experience in an essay titled 'Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir.' She was an excellent and insightful writer, and this essay is no exception. I found it in a collection of her writings, called The Woman at the Washington Zoo, edited by Timothy Noah (her husband). Ilil

Friend with cancer - what else can we do?

August 2008

A very dear friend, and the mother of a 7 year old, has been diagnosed with cancer. She began chemotherapy today. Our community has rallied around wonderfully - we have arranged dinners to be delivered 3 times a week, to always have a family on-call for childcare, and are looking into a housekeeper.

My question is, what else can we do? People who have been through this, what helped you out? We were thinking of putting together care packages for after each chemo session - what should go into it? Will she be suffering from nausea, dry mouth, hair loss, or what? What will help alleviate those - special teas, popsicles, hard candies, ???? Any ideas will be appreciated! in shock, but rallying


I'm fortunate enough not to have direct experience with chemo, but here is a site that may make it easier to coordinate care: http://www.lotsahelpinghands.com/ It's an online scheduling tool for caregivers. The person needing care (or their family/friends) posts a list of what is needed and when (e.g. dinner on Thursday, kids to soccer on Saturday...) and people sign up. It also allows you to post photos, updates, etc. Your friend is lucky to have you
Check out http://circusofcancer.org/ - lots of advice for people with a friend with cancer.
How wonderful that you and your community are so generous to a friend in need. I don't have any specific advice, but can recommend the NCI website for free publications that you may find helpful: https://cissecure.nci.nih.gov/ncipubs/ Some of the publications include tips on coping with chemotherapy side effects, meal and snack ideas, etc. My mother was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and I found these tips to be helpful. One other thing... periodically and when the time is right, ask your friend what you can do to help. As simple as that sounds, we often overlook it. And her needs, both physical and emotional, will change over time.
I applaud you and your community. It really takes a village and having a good supportive network thru cancer treatment (and post) is so key. I think that all you're doing is fantastic - I just might suggest that you also realize that your friend may want to be reminded of her non-cancer life - talk about other things, etc.. A great resource - www.circusofcancer.org. been there
When I read your posting my heart went out to you all. I think that you all are doing and giving such great gifts and that is wonderful. All that I can think is are these:

1. The gift of time (invite over for dinner, a sleepover for the daughter, a movie certificate, time spent together certificate, listening and reaching out.

2. Things that are favorites to be enjoyed when she is feeling well. (a favorite tea, meal, favorite songs, favorite books, positive quotes, positive words of encouragment, a listening ear...)

3. Remember to include things for her daughter, because her daughter is probably feeling some stress and needs support. Blessings to you! Rachel


Unfortunately, I've gone thru this more than a few times. My suggestion is to ask your friend what she needs. Most often we go into ''hero mode'' and think that all of the support is what a person wants, when what they really want is a break, time to themselves and time to figure out what they need. In other cases, there are people who don't know what they need, and can't ask for help, but if she's a good friend you would have learned that about her a long time ago, and know what to do (and not do). May god bless your friend. David
Dear Friend- I think it is just great that you are so thoughtful about your friend's needs when she's in chemo. May I share a refection or two about my cancer treatment? Your network is right on the dot when it comes to preprepared meals. After the first day or two you are hungry and certainly your family is no matter how you feel. So providing dinners is great. My friends gave me a gift certificate to Home on the Range and that was wonderful. The hair thing freaks you out even if you are trying to be brave...it's a nasty feeling to have your hair come out in huge clumps. Scheduling an appointment with a hairdresser and going with her to have her hair shaved or clipped short at about Day 15 of the first round will preempt that yuckkiness. Also making little soft caps from fleece for her would be super. I didn't realize HOW cold my head would get at night. I ended up wrapping clean underpants around my head (You can tell I had this experience a few years back) Don't let your friend be a superwoman. INSIST that she let you or another go with her to her chemo. It's really boring and very creepy no matter how cheerful the staff is. I went alone because my children were too young to come and I didn't want to be a burden to my friends. What a mistake.

The biggest thing on the list is a positive outlook no matter what the doctors say. They are all way too cautious and you keep thinking ''Am I going to live or not...will somebody just let me know for goodness sake'' They never do. Must be an insurance liability issue. So tell your friend EVERY day for a while You ARE going to make it!!!!All the studies say that she will. And when she has any kind of little concern about how she's feeling on treatment or follow up treatment urge her to call the advice nurse and not feel as though she's bugging anyone. It's been 11 years for me, but I still get days of nerve pain from my mastectomy and my energy level has never been the same. No one has to be a hero...just remember that for a while, she'll think every new ache and pain is cancer (I still do when I have indigestion!) and that the chemo and follow up meds are forms of poison that will save her, but she need not feel ungrateful for her chance to a full life if she complains occasionally about the side effects. God Bless Both of You-Susan


Father's possible lung cancer diagnosis

June 2008

My father was recently told by his pulmonary doctor that there are some ''fuzzy areas'' on x-rays of his lungs. Consequently my father will have a CT scan and be given the results a few days later. I plan on attending his appointment when he finds out if he has lung cancer. I am hoping for the best but want to make sure I am prepared for the worst but I have no idea what questions I should ask the doctor if my father does indeed have cancer. I know my father will be devastated so it is important for me to be the ''question asker'' and ''information gatherer''. If anyone has been in a similar situation and can guide me or provide me with some resources, I would certainly appreciate it. anon


My dad was diagnosed with another cancer when he was 62. He lived over a year before passing away. Though I wasn't with him for the diagnosis (a wonderful support you'll give your dad), I moved back to California to be with him that last year. My dad was organized, intellectual and logical. He was so overwhelmed by the diagnosis and treatment sometimes that it really helped him to have me around to remember and reflect. He made his own decisions, researched, tried treatments, and was quite engaged in the process. But having me along as one of the closest companions during that year was so important to us both. Perhaps keep a three ring binder to take notes that pages and sections can be added to as things develop. Or not! I wish you the best possible news. - in empathy
You are very smart to inquire before the appointement. My father was diagnosed in 2001 and my parents were so afraid they asked nothing and consequently were told nothing. Lung cancer is now fairly well 'read'' by doctors now so if you have questions chances are you will get clear answers. I would definitely ask the stage (1,2 3 or 4). Write down everything, especially majore words. If for some reasons he doesn't want to give a stage or isn't talkative, those major words will help in looking for info on the net. The treatement is also an indicator. Between just that (chemotherapy only) and the couple words my mom mentioned i figured out he was a stage 4 and had 1 year max...which all turned out to be accurate. But really aside from the stage, kind of lung cancer and treatement he might not say much more. good luck

Friend's father in Hong Kong has lung cancer

Feb 2008

The father of one of my good friends just found out he has a tumor in his lungs and it has metasasised to his lymph nodes, bone, and possibly liver. He has never smoked in his life, yet the cancer is the type that smokers get (he does live in HK, and it might be from the pollution there). The strange thing is, he feels fine and would not have found out except for a routine physical required to renew his drivers license (he is around 70 years old). He does not want chemotherapy, because it has a very small chance of helping him and will destroy his currently good quality of life. Does anyone know of alternative treatments for lung cancer? He lives in HK but is willing to travel anywhere for treatments. Thank you! cc


I am so sorry to hear about your friend's father. My father is in the final stages of metastasized lung cancer (he is expected to live a few more months). Once the cancer reaches the bones, it is extremely painful and most recommendations on treatments seem to be about pain management. Radiation does seem to be quite effective in eliminating pain, but there still are side effects. My father has gotten relief from the pain through radiation and has also gotten some of his mobility back. Chemotherapy is still a possibilty, but probably unlikely.

I do not know of any exceptional places for treatment, but would suggest that your friend consider where her father would like to live for the remainder of his time. anon


Directly to the point: there are no alternative treatments for lung cancer. I know two people who have had metasticized lung cancer. They were both in their sixties and otherwise healthy. Both had their cancers discovered following what they thought was a cold that would not go away. One person had never smoked at all. She continued to work while getting chemotherapy. She is still working and getting treatment a year later because the cancer never went into remission, although it has metasticized to the bones.

The other person was a relative and a smoker, and I went to all appointments with her for two years. She had chemo and radiation treatment. She went into remission after her first round of chemo, and was cancer free for the next two years, and then died of something totally unrelated.

Chemo/radiation will not necessarily ruin your friend's quality of life if he is otherwise healthy. They are the only tools that might extend his life. Without chemo, lung cancer patients go downhill quickly, because it quickly metasticizes to other areas, including the brain. good luck


Your father's friend was very lucky to have found his lung cancer before he had symptoms. Since this is so unusual, I would recommend a second opinion to ensure that there was not some type of mix-up in the x-rays.

If the diagnosis is confirmed, I would suggest a two-week luxury vacation with an emphasis on healthy activities and diet. Healthy patients have a longer survival time. It would take two weeks to get an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in any case. Go to www.mayoclinic.org/lung-cancer/ to make an appointment. Several clinical trials at the Mayo Clinic have openings and there are some new options for treatment that might provide new hope. Still hopeful


How to help out-of-town friend with breast cancer?

Feb 2008

A good friend of mine was just diagnosed with breast cancer. It was caught fairly early and will be treated with about three sessions of chemo and a few months of radiation.

My question is, she lives across the country and I am at a loss for how to support her. If I was there, I could take her to treatment, walk her dog, etc. Besides sending cards, making regular phone calls, what do you think would help? I can send flowers from time to time, but was wondering if the smell of flowers might be sickening to someone undergoing treatment (does it make you sensitive to smells?) Are chocolates a good idea, or ditto previous? Relaxation tapes?

I realize that treatments vary and affect people differently. But I'm kind of floundering here. Is there anyone out there who has gone through this personally or with a friend? What made you feel better? What kind of support was most helpful? Thanks in advance Want to help


There is a website created by a local mom that addresses exactly the questions you are asking. It's www.circusofcancer.org. anon
I am sure your friendship and phone calls are invaluable. I went through something similar with someone close to me and some of the extras I did included:

hiring someone to clean their house

sending funny movies and TV shows, with the idea that humor is good medicine. He especially appreciated The Simpsons and old Saturday Night Lives. The shorter length of The Simpsons was perfect when his energy was low and he found it surprisingly touching.

Sending food

Helping the helpers - find out how her family is doing, send things her kids might like or to help her husband

Chocolate is great for chemo. people say it is hard to get the taste of the chemo drugs out of their mouth.

It is tricky. People have major needs when they are struggling with cancer but when someone says ''what can I do?'', they often don't want to impose or cannot think of anything in the moment. I say, err on the side of doing too much - send stuff, call a lot, anticipate needs. Take care. Also a friend


I'm sorry about your friend's diagnosis. I feel for you and can empathize with your situation. Check out this web site which I found really helpful - www.circusofcancer.org. Do check in with your friend consistently to let her know you're thinking of her - but realize that she may be overwhelmed/tired and not want the pressure of returning calls/emails.. Even a little note in the mail or feel good care package is wonderful. And, remember that your friend probably wants to talk about other things besides her cancer. It's been amazing to me how some friends really step up - and others find this too hard and simply disappear from the picture. Good luck! anon
The Wellness Community in Walnut Creek is really a great resource. Even if you are not a group type of person they have a lot of classes and referrals available.

On a personal note, my surgeon was Nima Grissmon in San Francisco. Although your insurance covers the East Bay she might be good for a second opinion. She is very direct and compassionate and I know other women who have had similar experiences with her. Debra


My sister in Oregon just underwent treatment for breast cancer. I would suggest really just staying in touch with your friend through the process as the best way to help. Ask her what she needs. I found a meal service that delivers meals as well as did some online grocery shopping for my sister. Something like that may or may not be an option for your friend depending on where she lives...also treatment will likely make her pretty nauseous so you would need to take that into account. I would call the American Cancer Society (800-ACS-2345) to find out what support services they have in the area in which your friend lives. They often have volunteers who can drive people to appointments and Reach to Recovery which is a support program led by breast cancer survivors who help newbies navigate the whole, challenging path. Just staying in regular contact with your friend to deal with the ups and downs will be big help! anon
I am currently getting chemotherapy for breast cancer. Many women gain weight on chemo so chocolate may not be the best gift. I enjoy flowers that friends send from time to time. Mostly I like their cards, emails and phone calls. Know her chemo schedule and check in with her the next day to see how she's doing. Ask specific questions so she can feel ''OK'' about talking about how she is feeling. I often don't want to seem like I'm a whimp or complaining so I will try to not talk about my side effects unless specifically asked. If she doesn't already have a house cleaning service and you can afford it, get her some visits from Merry Maids or some other national cleaning company. Also she may appreciate some earrings as a gift. Earrings are really important when you are bald. Netflix and good paperbacks are other good things I have gotten from friends. I couldn't get through this without my friends. She will appreciate your caring and support. Sorry your friend has to go through this. anon
Hi, I'm a woman who has had breast cancer and my advice is to stay in touch with your friend by telephone, be available to really listen to her and just let her talk. What is useful is to sympathize with what she's going through(without trying to change anything and without making suggestions), and beyond that take your cues from her. I always appreciated messages from friends that they were ''thinking of me'' without expecting me to call them back. And also offers of very practical and specific help, like grocery shopping, or preparing meals. I loved flowers, and if your friend likes them an occasional flower delivery would be nice. More practical things like paying to have someone clean her house. Also, cards to let her know you are thinking of her. Another idea is to send her something pretty to wear, a lovely robe, a nightie, something personal for her that is NOT about cancer. Those are some ideas of things you can do from a distance. Knows the Territory
So sorry to hear what you're going through. Women's Cancer Resource Center is a great place with loads of resources from treatments to practitioners to alternative therapies. They also have support groups. Dr Cassidy with the Alta Bates/Herrick Cancer Center is a doctor I've referred many people to. He's very skilled, with a warm heart too. Lisa Bailey is an outstanding surgeon who's office is across from Herrick. She's been incredible with a friend of mine who was also diagnosed in her early 40's, also a mother. I wish you well. Helen
How wonderful that you want to ''be there'' for your friend even though you're miles away. During my current experience with breast cancer, one of the most amazing things my friends did was have a virtual ''hat shower'' the week after my first chemo treatment. I received 5 hats the first day, 3 the second day, 3 the third day, and 1 the fourth day--they arrived via FedEx, UPS, messenger, and US Mail. Another thing I valued was receiving books--not scientific or inspirational, but darn good escapist reading. Episodic DVDs are good too. One friend loaned me seasons two and three of ''24''; another friend loaned me both seasons of ''Rome''.

The hardest thing for me to deal with was all of the food--people want to nurture you--but during chemo our taste changes dramatically and our refrigerators/freezers fill up fast.

I also enjoyed all of the cards I received, and still enjoy reading them when I'm feeling lonely or low. You may also want to organize some of your friends to join you on one of the many breast cancer walks in her honor. (You'll find more good ideas on www.circusofcancer.org.)

Your friend is lucky to have you in her court. Warrior Princess


Hi, My Aunt underwent treatment for breast cancer very much like your friend and she lived on the east coast. The best support I found is calling every week as I always did and just talked about anything and listened and encouraged her. I know she couldn't eat chocolate during the treatments (some negative reason while undergoing treatment) as I sent her some expensive chocolates and she couldn't have them. Flowers once in a while, but not a lot as they cause attention. A note, a picture of you and if you have a family...If you can make a visit once, that would be great as well. Just be the friend you always have been Karen
During my husbands treatment the most helpful thing a far away friend could do was schedule a visit. Ask when to visit during treatment to provide support or in between treatments to provide distraction. Susan
you might want to think about a gift of clothing that is not especially cancer-related. Chemo can make you lose weight, or gain weight (my best friend lost a lot of weight during hers, my husband gained weight during chemo but lost it during radiation). People don't like to buy new clothes for their temporarily different-sized body but it is nice have things that actually fit while you are going through this.

my other suggestion is include in your phone conversations topics other than her cancer. Don't of course ignore that aspect about what is going on, but tell her about your kids, ask about hers, talk about shopping, movies, politics, anything you normally chatted about with her. Don't let the friendship be all about the cancer. It is the strongest message you can send that she will get through this.


I'm sorry to hear about your friend. She is lucky to have you asking such a question. Very thoughtful. I have breast cancer and am just finishing up my last chemo. People have been amazing and I can give you a few ideas. First of all, there is a great website called circusofcancer.org that specifically answers your question about support for a friend. Personally, I love flowers-always help brighten my day and a good reminder of the love out there coming my way. No problem with the chemo. Gift certificates are always appreciated, if you have the money. You could figure out some good take out or delivery places in her neighboorhood. You could also contribute to a maid service. Maybe she'd like a massage. You could send a care package with little things she might enjoy. In all honesty, you don't need to spend a lot of money though. People sent me really nice cards and emails with words of encouragement that meant a lot to me. So--hope this helps and best wishes for healing for your friend. kelly
Your friend with breast cancer would probably enjoy gifts related to good news about preventing the recurrence of breast cancer. For example, exercise has been shown to prevent the onset and recurrence of breast cancer. Would your friend appreciate a pair of ice skates or a gym membership? There is also good news about healthy oils. Would your friend like a gift of California extra-virgin olive oil? Would she enjoy ''Fruit of the Month'' gift baskets?

I would not send sweets or alcohol. Alcohol use is the most well-established dietary risk factor for breast cancer and has been shown to be the reaon that white women in Marin have a slightly higher breast-cancer rate. Optimistic


When breast cancer hit our household, one of the nicest things a friend of mineon the East Coast did was call Merry Maids and paid for my house ot be cleaned (she is a lawyer, so she actually paid for 6 cleanings, but even 1 time would have been great!). Much better than flowers. stephanie
I am so sorry about your friend! And thank you for wanting to help. I have not had breast cancer (thank god) but have some friends who have had. Each seemed to need something different in the way of support, from one friend who called to tell me what was going on and that she did not want to talk or get together until it was all over. I sent her regular cards, and waited until she was ready to reconnect. Other friends have needed much more support. You'll need to check with your friend about what is allowed--I once brought a potted plant to a friend about to undergo treatment only to see her smile and say she'd have to leave it outside because the treatment would weaken her immune system to the point where she might get a fungal infection from it. I felt terrible. So what can you do? Cards, letters, a magazine subscription to something fun, meal subscriptions (there are places you can mail order gourmet meals). You could call up a local restaurant and ask them to deliver. I have a friend who's husband is very ill and a friend of hers started an email ''how-to-help'' list for well-wishers: when she needs help of any kind--grocery shopping, emergency babysitter, even a fence mended--out goes an email to the list and someone volunteers to help out. It's worked very well. My best wishes to you both. a friend

Dear friend in the midwest with bone cancer

June 2007

I've just heard from a dear friend living in the midwest that she has bone cancer. It does not sound good. She previously had breast cancer, has been in full remission for 8 years, and now this. She's been going through radiation, will have chemo and some painful injected drug course. I'm wondering if anyone else close to someone who is dealing with a chronic, possibly fatal disease, can share ideas of how to send love and comfort from the distance. She isn't up to visits, and I'm sending frequent emails, but am searching for more to do. She has no kids of her own, but a wonderful husband whom I'm sure is just suffering himself. Any specific ideas for resources in the Kansas City (MO) area would be really great. Searching for ways to help


I'm so sorry to hear about your friend. My high school friend of 20 yrs past away from breast cancer last year 2-mos shy of her 40th birthday. See lived in TX. When I found out she had terminal cancer & was too sick for visitors, I put together a little memory book for her. I dug out all my high school photos & found about 5 or so that represented our friendship together. I found a pretty little picture-sized scrapbook with a ribbon binding. I wrote a general message to her on the first page of the book. Then I put each photo in the book with on the opposite page a little story about our friendship & the circumstances around the photo. Not only did I make this little memory book for my friend, but also for her children as a keepsake. All the photos showed their mother, young, vibrant & smiling. That's how I'd hope her family remembers her as that was truly her spirit. I later found out that she took this memory book to all her dr & chemo visits to show everyone. I'm still very touched as to how special this little book was to her & I truly believe that it was the greatest gift I could have given her. A few other more practical ideas, I also sent her family gift cards for local resturants as her husband was having a difficult time with all the cooking. (I said the gift cards were in lieu of a hotdish that I would have brought them, had I lived near.) We also looked into helping out by anomously paying for some of her medical expenses that were starting to add up. We also looked into a house cleaning service in her area. In lieu of these 2 ideas, we simply sent Visa gift cards to be used on whatever the family needed. Hope some of these ideas will be good for you. Debbie
I am dealiing with the exact same situation, although my friend lives in another city. Here are some things that I have done. Since my friend is not one to ask for special favors, I called her husband to see what would be helpful. He was more forthcoming (it's also REALLY hard to be the spouse of someone battling cancer -- you are expected to be unfailingly supportive and not express anxieties of your own). I found a service that delivered home-cooked meals to their house, and did that a few times. They were very grateful. From time to time, I send books and DVDs that I know she would like (timed to arrive right when she is recuperating from treatments). Good luck. She is lucky to have you as a friend. Anon
I'm sorry to hear about your friend's illness. It sounds grave and terrifying.

I just lost a very beloved and long-time friend to cancer earlier in the year. She similarly lived a quite a distance and I wasn't able to be a part of her daily support system. A mutual friend, Maria, came up with a wonderful idea, which brought great joy to my friend before her death. To celebrate our friend's (last) birthday, Maria sent out an email inviting us to contribute a birthday page for a scrapbook she then assembled. Maria collected lots of email addresses and sent this invitation to a wide circle of family, friends, and colleagues. She ultimately assembled an incredible fifty-page scrapbook that our friend just adored and read over and over before her death. Some folks went to great lengths, adding poems, photos, souvenirs. Centering it on our friend's birthday was uplifting and joyful.

It's something you could assemble from afar and might be a deeply important gift to someone wondering how they'll be remembered. It was also a gift to each of us who contributed a page, allowing us to express our love for our friend, reminisce with her about the great times we shared together over the last twenty years, and help us in the process prepare ourselves for her loss.

I know she treasured her book and when she read it she said it was like we were all in the room with her. Which we were.


Devastated about my aunt's breast cancer

April 2007

I just received word yesterday that my aunt is dying of malignant breast cancer. She's been getting treatment for the last couple of years and we thought we had hope but now the cancer has gotten progressively worse that she's got tumors the size of grapefruit on the sides of each breast and she's given up on radiation because she frankly can't afford it anymore. She lives in a rural part of Mexico and had to commute by bus for 2 hours to get a little bit of treatment for the amount of money she could pay. She's too tired now she says and will live life the fullest she can. She has a down syndrome child who is now an adult and she worries very much about him as to what's going to happen to him when she passes on. She has grown children and my uncle that are doing their best to make her life as comfortable as possible.

So what's my question, frankly, I've never had someone so close to me affected by breast cancer, and I'm simply overwhelmed at my response. I can't stop thinking about her and crying my eyes out for her. She's such a good person, she's been such a wonderful and supportive strong mother to her children and faithful, loyal partner to her husband, and a wonderful aunt with whom I share fond memories of childhood. I'm simply devastated and I've been crying myself to sleep thinking about the pain she must be feeling emotionally, spiritually, and of course physically. My husband whose father passed on of throat cancer suggests I do all I can possible to send her good vibes, keep her in my prayers, send her financial sustenance that we can afford, and think positive; making her feel worse by feeling extremely sad is not helpful to her. I try of course to keep a strong face when I talk to her, but in the shadow of the night when the house is quiet, the blob of tears simply roll down my weathered cheeks. I want to celebrate her life now that she's still with us and be happy, but I simply don't know how. Please, anybody, advise. Thank you. Devastated Niece


I really feel for you. A very close friend of mine just passed away from cancer. I cared for her (along with many others) for the past year. I don't think there is an easy answer here. Can you visit your aunt and spend some time with her? You might make her time left here easier by helping with the housework and the son at home. Maybe also helping your uncle figure out how the son will be cared for, which could be a comfort to him. Even a week, if you are going as far as Mexico. I spent a long weekend with my favorite aunt when she started to get worse from Parkinson's symptoms. It was a nice visit, though heartbreaking. I was glad to have had some special time with her before she passed. I helped her clean her kitchen and house and she really appriciated it (as did my uncle). We took a daytrip to birdwatch. We basically enjoyed eachother.

It does hurt, awfully. Time is a great healer and while right now you may not want to completely let go of your pain, try to mobilze yourself to be with her while you can. You will both find comfort in it. anon


When my mother was dying of cancer she loved getting notes form people (without obligations to sned them replies. She loved the notes that told of a fond memory that the writer and she had shared. She was very touched to hear in these notes how much she meant to these different peopl. I think she had little idea of the positive and strong and lasting impact she had on somany friends and family members. She also liked the phone calls, too. But as she became weaker, the phone calls were harder to gather energy for. So I recommend that you call her often , if she has a phone, and tell her the stories you remember from your childhood. Ask her about stories from her own childhood. She may be recalling many of them now. You can also send her little notes, and perhaps encourage your siblings and cousins to do the same. As she is reviewing her life, these things will affirm for her how important she is to those around her. These things will bring her joy, even in a time of difficult transition.

Also, it is okay to cry anytime. It is fine to cry when you are at your home in the middle of the night. It is fine to cry all of a sudden in the middle of the day, when those around you may be mystified. It is okay to talk about your aunt's illness and upcoming death with those around you. Death should not be a taboo subject. You may find that some of those around you have been through similar phases in their lives. They may be helpful. - May you find Peace


It sounds like you are grieving for your aunt. Very normal. maybe meeting with Howard Lunche, a grief counselor, would be helpful to you. He can be reached at 841-2930.

Supporting my parents through Mom's breast cancer

May 2006

I would like advice from families whose Mother had breast cancer. What gave you strength? How did your family provide emotional support for your Mom and Dad? What would you do different if you could do it all again?

My 65 year old mother has been fighting breast cancer for ten years. Her cancer has spread to many parts of her body and is Stage IV. We know this might be her last year.

My Mom and Dad relocated from out of state to receive treatment at UCSF after unsuccessful treatment at MD Anderson. My father has been her primary caregiver and is emotionally fatigued. My sister, husband, and I are the only people they regularly see.

My Mom is scared and lonely. My Dad is frightened and coping the best he can. My family has been thinking about hiring an assistant for my Mom who can provide her with companionship. She would like to find someone who has some medical training, fluent in Mandarin, and enjoys reading the bible. She wants someone who will hold her hand and give her comfort.

Does anyone have any advice on how they helped their parents with cancer? Did you have any positive experiences with support groups that you could recommend?

Any life lessons learned that you would like to share? What to expect as the last chapter closes? How to find a companion for my Mom - is this something hospitals can refer? Thankful for Each Day


UCSF (and most hospitals) have caregiver support groups, and also support groups for patients -- though I don't think they have any in Mandarin, but it would be worth checking. There are also specific social services for patients with breast cancer and their families. I think your father would benefit from your mother having a companion, so that he could have a few hours to take care of himself, or rest. Your parents are fortunate that you are able to help and research this for them. carol
I am sorry you and your family are going through this. My father died of cancer 7 years ago and the death of a parent, especially one that is close, is a pain that will stay with you. An amazing book, for you and you father is Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. I feel lucky to have read it while my father was still alive. It helped me to understand the process he was going through and how best to help and support him. It also helped me work through my feelings and complex emotions. It was written by two hospice nurses and addresses all of the questions you listed in your post. It is not a long book, you could read it in a day or two. Sadly, my mother (his primary care giver) was not ready to read the book and she struggled with the entire process which I felt was really unfair to my father, it really put a strain on him and prolonged his suffering. But after reading the book, I felt at peace with the situation, I had clarity, and I was able to say Goodbye to my father - I know he appreciated my strength, honesty and courage (all qualities that i was quick to point out, I learned from him). Your mother still has much to teach you, even in this stage - be open to her. I wish you and your family the best on this journey. venus
I am so sorry to hear about your mother's struggle. I am also very glad to hear that she is close enough to you so that you can spend time with her. My husband's mother died of pancreatic cancer over 3 years ago. I would say that the best thing he ever did during her short struggle with the disease was to simply spend time with her. During her ''last'' weeks -- who can ever truly know how long a person will continue to live -- doctors are not gods in that sense, my husband stopped his medical residency training and went to spend time with her out of state. To me, that initally seemed a risky move, for we were basically living like students at that time, month to month on only his salary. But I supported him because that was what he wanted to do. She lived a bit beyond what her doctor had anticipated to be her last few days, but my husband never ever has regretted being there for her. He was there for her and he was there for himself as a son, as a way to support and love her. He was with her the night she died and I believe he feels that is the best gift he could have given the mother who gave her entire life to him. So I would suggest being there as much as you can and care to, even if it seems a bit inconvenient financially or a bit unrealistic. You won't regret it.

And with regards to young children, we tried to get our son up to see her immediately after her diagnosis, for we knew things would change for the worst very quickly with this particular line of cancer. And in the end, when she was heavily medicated and in and out of conciousness, we kept him away so he would remember his grandmother in his mind's eye in her healthy state -- he was only 1 1/2 Best to you


I'm sorry to hear about your mom and your family's situation. It sounds like your mom could benefit from some support. Check out the Community Breast Health Project: http://www.cbhp.org. They are a great free resource for breast cancer patients and families, and are located in Palo Alto. You can call them and explain your situation - I'm sure they can help find you resources you need.

UCSF also has support resources - ask the oncology nurses for more information. There are many support groups around the bay area affiliated with different hospitals (depending on where it is convenient for you) - some for patients, for families, spouses, etc. They are open to anyone. It can be incredibly helpful to know that you're not alone when dealing with breast cancer. Don't hesitate to ask for help! --- a breast cancer survivor


My mom was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer

March 2006

Hi- My otherwise healthy 58 year old mother just recently received the grim diagnosis of Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Does anyone out there have any experience with successful alternative treatments? I am particularly interested in herbs or supplements which she could use WITH chemotherapy. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. T.


Dear T.,
You have my every sympathy. I lost my wife to pancreatic cancer about a decade ago, and it's still painful to think about. As for the question of alternative therapies, my opinion is that your love and attention are be best 'alternative' therapies. If your love and attention includes use of one or another strange concoction, then so be it.

About more conventional 'palliative therapies', I have two thoughts: 1) Pain control is of utmost importance. To say that pain affects the quality of life is an understatement. It's worth paying a great deal of effort to pain control. 2) Sometimes paying attention to other details can be helpful.
Best wishes,
''Been there''


Being supportive about father-in-law's cancer

July 2003

my mom's husband just got diagnosed with a virulent cancer and we are unclear on how to be supportive. i've found a lot of information on how to deal with cancer but not a lot on how family (both for my mom and for us) can help without being inappropriately cheerful or gloomy. are there things we can send (relaxation videos), things we can read to help us help him that anyone knows about? thanks. jc


I am so sorry to hear of your father-in-law's cancer. Several year's ago when I was dealing with a parent's late-stage cancer, I was given a book which helped me infinitely. The book is called Who Dies? by author Stephen Levine, a meditation teacher who spent part of his career working with hospice patients. During this period of his illness, I picked it up frequently and read random pages or chapters, and found it always helpful. Who Dies? was also recorded as a set of lectures. Good luck to all of you. deirdre
I am sorry to hear about your mother's husband's cancer. I don't know at all what your religious or philosophical beliefs are, but want to let you know about ''The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying'' by Sogyal Rinpoche. Many people have found it very helpful to read in whole or in part at times like this. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about it as I am a student of this teacher. Kind wishes, Yvonne
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