Cancer changes life profoundly, how to care for a friend as they navigate life after diagnosis

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Cancer can leave one's life altered, and good friends can help make that journey more comfortable. An illustration. Photo by Getty Images
Cancer can leave one's life altered, and good friends can help make that journey more comfortable. An illustration. Photo by Getty Images
  • If you’ve ever had a family member or friend struck by cancer, you’ll know their life changes irrevocably from the time of diagnosis.
  • Cancer removes someone from their regular way of life, often making them feel isolated from the rest of the world.
  • There are many changes, from having to deal with extreme physical symptoms and arduous medical treatments to the fear of having to face their mortality.
  • Knowing that someone is with them on their journey can make a world of difference at such a taxing time.

Being a good friend isn’t just a wonderful gesture, though. Experts state that support can make a lasting difference to a person living with cancer. Friendship is a powerful aid in helping anyone heal from a physical illness and can substantially impact how your friend copes with his or her condition. 

Studies show that cancer patients with strong supportive networks suffer less pain and receive more effective cancer medications than patients with less support. Even more profoundly, research indicates that supportive social networks can influence a patient’s mortality during the struggle - contributing both to their speedy recovery and prolonging their survival.

READ MORE: Rihanna's new Savage X Fenty campaign features black breast cancer survivors

Your support and encouragement can take the form of emotional support, or practical aid, like taking dinner around or driving your friend to medical appointments. Try these ways to help:

REACH OUT

 At first, it may seem challenging to know what to say, but the best thing for someone who is suffering is to let them know they are not alone. Even a short text message asking how they are doing can lighten up their day. If you can’t visit due to social distancing or live far away, WhatsApp video calls are a great way to lift a patient’s spirits.

TAKE TIME TO VISIT

 Regular contact and visits (if your friend is up to it) are essential. See how they respond to different activities, like going out for a cup of tea or a walk, and know that the situation may change as their treatment goes on.

Be sensitive to what they want to talk about and understand that they may not want to speak at all, but want company. If your friend is weak, she may need to rest frequently, so instead arrange short, regular visits rather than long, infrequent ones. Remember that time can seem the same to someone who is house-bound, so try and visit when others aren’t - a Wednesday afternoon can be just as lonely as a weekend evening. And make sure to mention your next visit, so that your friend can look forward to it.

READ MORE: Breast cancer awareness is not enough: Public health strategies need to be based on prevention

EDUCATE YOURSELF

Read up about your friend’s specific cancer so that you can better understand what he or she is going through. There is so much information on all types of cancer online - a good starting point would be cansa.org.za and cancer.com. By asking informed questions, you’ll show you care. And, encourage your friend to try out some of the incredibly useful cancer-care and organisational apps out there, like CaringBridge and CareZone.

START A NETWORK

 If a group of you are supporting a friend, divide up roles for specific jobs, like making dinners and dropping them off, taking children to school or sports activities, organising medicine, driving your friend to medical appointments, and keeping them company during treatments. Younger family members wanting to help can keep the patient entertained by sending funny videos and photos. Assume your help is needed, even if your friend has a strong family network. If you’re unsure what to do, ask how you can make a difference, then follow through.

READ MORE: I discovered I have the BRCA 1 gene, and thought if Angelina Jolie can do it..."

PROVIDE HELP

 Cancer and chemo can cause extreme tiredness, with fatigue sometimes lasting weeks or months after treatment ends. Patients may be too weak to do house chores or clean up, so free up your friend’s time and energy by booking a home service through SweepSouth. It’s an affordable, easy-to-use online service that allows you to book a verified, reliable cleaner or gardener for a morning or a day, taking care of chores like house-cleaning and mowing the lawn that your friend may not have the energy for. Club in as a group to arrange a few sessions so that chores are taken care of for a month or two.

SUPPORT CAREGIVERS

 Patients need support, but their families and children do, too. They may be going through tremendous anxiety and will have a real need to talk to someone about what has happened and is still happening. Making food or taking them out while your friend is resting or is in the hospital will make a real difference, and help your friend, too, who will be worried about the effect her illness is having on loved ones.

SMALL SNACKS

Nausea is a common symptom of people living with cancer. Ginger sweets are known to alleviate symptoms, so they are handy to have around for whenever nausea strikes. Small snacks throughout the day can also help when a patient doesn’t feel like eating - try dried fruit, fruit juices, yoghurt drinks and muffins. Chemo can change a patient’s taste, and some drugs may cause dryness and mouth sores, so ask your friend what they feel like at that time. 

READ MORE: Rihanna donates proceeds from every pink Savage x Fenty style purchased to Clara Lionel Foundation for breast cancer

GIVE A TREAT

Treating a sufferer to a special gift is a wonderful way to show you care. Soft blankets, special pillows and heating pads will make napping sessions more comfortable, or try a gift to make them smile, like silly socks and fun hats and scarves to disguise hair loss. Chemo often causes dehydrated skin, so nourishing soaps and body butters will be welcome - just make them odourless, as chemo can change a sufferer’s sense of smell. To help while away the time during treatment sessions, a beautiful journal in which to write down thoughts is a caring gift.

AND AFTER…

Friends still need encouragement and support after their cancer treatment is finished. Your friend will now be trying to find what their new “normal” is and your encouragement and company can form an essential part of this.

Want to get in touch with us? Send us an email on chatback@w24.co.za

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