An old friend called this week, asking if I had any advice regarding how to help a 19-year old boy who is terminally ill with cancer. The question did not shock me. As a cancer survivor myself, I am a member of a club no one wishes to join, but a club that comes with the privilege of entrance into the most intimate aspect of life: sickness and mortality. Over the years, I have listened to countless people share the turmoil they experience as either they, or their loved one, battles this life-threatening disease. On multiple occasions, I visited a hospital room that was occupied by a cancer-fighting compatriot one day, and the next day was empty. I have been in the world of cancer too long to be shocked by the question posed by my friend; however, I will always be deeply saddened when cancer strikes, and cannot wait for the day when a cure is found.
How do you comfort someone facing cancer? I realized there are far too many people asking this question for me to remain silent. The following 3 tips are simply my own perspective – what I found helpful personally, and how I reached out to others. I hope it alleviates some of your anxiety, as you or a loved one wonders how to be there for someone who is battling cancer.
Simply put: the best way to be there is to be there. There are times in every cancer
patient’s life when you do not want to be seen, particularly by those close to you, out of
embarrassment or exhaustion, but most often a cancer patient needs to know that they are not alone in their fight. And the easiest part is that you are not even obligated to DO
anything. That is the coolest thing about presence. A phone call or letter when you are unable to be physically present is also great. One aspect of the Cancer for College scholarship application is an essay about “how cancer impacted your family.” I love reading stories about how family, friends, and entire communities come together to support one person’s battle, thus making it their battle, too. To know that you are not alone is just as powerful as any chemo treatment.
Let’s face it, as hard as they try, hospitals are uncomfortable places. They are not home. Everything is sterile, there are beeping contraptions attached to your body, the bed seems to have more buttons than a spaceship, and strange (but loving) people keep coming in
and out at all hours. You get the picture. It is easy to feel out of place, confined, and unsure what to do. Unlike the previous tip, this one is all about activity. Bring a little normalcy back to your friend’s life by engaging with them in their hobbies. My mom read The Hatchet and Star Wars books with me, friends sat on the bed and played video games, and we built
Zoids (giant, mechanical, fighting animal, robots. Very therapeutic, actually). We even
corralled some nurses into Nerf and water fights in the halls. This is what hospital volunteers do, and are amazing at it. I will never forget a volunteer, named Tosh, whose smile, jester hat, and willingness to just play brightened my day every time I saw him. Tosh became my friend because he made those hospital rooms feel more like home, and who better to help accomplish that than loved ones who essentially are your home.
This is the hardest one. The element no one likes, but still needs. Yet like a pinch of salt added to a meal, just a little honesty about the reality of cancer enhances and deepens the
flavor of your relationship. Cancer sucks. It is harsh, scary, and no one is prepared to face it when it hits. When you go through cancer, you are often changed physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To every cancer patient, there is no reason to be ashamed or
try to hide what is happening to you. True friends and family will never judge you, but will support you as best as possible. Let them. Cancer is a burden that is best carried by the strength of many shoulders, united FOR you and AGAINST it. There is a great poem that
someone shared with my family during our bout with cancer, and has since been shared with many of our friends in similar circumstances, which depicts what cancer cannot do (you can read it in its entirety here). The point, though, is that so often we let cancer control us by fear and the stigmatization that we need to be cautious and guarded around those battling the disease. I think that gives far too much power to cancer. The moments when I felt most loved and cared for during my battle were when people leveled with me about the reality of my diagnosis, and then made sure that I knew I was not my cancer.
I know this is a break from our regularly positive and happy posts about recipients who have beat cancer and have gone on to accomplish great things in college (like Yomi, Kalina, and Taylor) but we, at Cancer for College, know better than most how important it is to support one another throughout, and after, cancer. In the midst of your battle, we see your potential and want to be there to help you accomplish your dream of a college education. Keep fighting, and be sure to keep in touch with us when you fight off that cancer and are ready to get back doing what you love. We are here for you.
Cancer for College provides hope and inspiration to cancer survivors by granting college scholarships. Since inception, we have granted over $2 million in scholarships to more than 1000 cancer survivors. To learn more about Cancer for College, and to donate to help a cancer survivor go to college, visit cancerforcollege.org.
About the author: Mitch Friesen is a childhood cancer survivor, CFC scholarship recipient (2011-2014), and now works for Cancer for College as their Director of Growth & Community. Mitch graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Business Management and minor in Theology. A lifelong learner and lover of adventure, when Mitch is not catching up with all of the awesome CFC recipients, he can be found enjoying the outdoors with his bombshell of a wife (Abbey), watching/playing soccer, and drinking coffee.