Monday, October 20, 2014

Help for Friends Battling Cancer

October is breast cancer awareness month, and although I myself did not have breast cancer (I had endometrial cancer) it is a great opportunity to raise awareness for everyone battling the cancer beast.  In honor of those in the thick of their treatments, I offer these tips for friends and loved ones.

I.  Practical help.

First there are practical needs.  For example: house cleaning, rides, meals, grocery shopping, cards, phone calls (leave message, don’t expect/require call back, just let them know you are thinking of them.), babysitting, lawn care, financial assistance (treatments are expensive, and the person may be unable to work and have a reduced income), befriend their kids, take care of the caregiver, relieve caregiver (stay at the house for a few hours, bring a book, don’t expect to be entertained by the person - they may just need to sleep), care for pets, and send care packages.  My favorite care package included: a cd, cancer treatment cook book, devotional book, and a variety of teas.  My favorite gift was an e-reader; I could read or watch TV while in bed and take it to chemo.  Other ideas: non-fragrant or mildly scented lotions, soothing bath oils, comfy slippers, soft socks, light reading, and loose fitting, soft clothing.

Please call your friend and offer your assistance.  It is better for you to initiate the help and call them.  If you ask them to call you when they need help they may never call.  Why?  They may be too tired to make the phone call, or embarrassed to ask for help.  And call first before stopping by.  Your friend may not want visitors for a variety of reasons (feeling sick, etc.), and if they are home alone it may be difficult to get to the door.  A phone call in advance helps them prepare for your visit.

II. Insider tips:

Treatment plans are individual and medications and side effects vary, but here are some common challenges:

FOOD: Tastes change constantly when on chemotherapy.  Something that may taste good one minute, may be repulsive the next (this drove me a little nuts when I took care of others battling cancer, but then I experienced it for myself).  Food doesn’t taste as expected.  Keep trying different things, variety is key.  Often foods high in protein are recommended.  Many people have to avoid cold foods at certain times due to neuralgias related to chemotherapy drugs.

CHEMO BRAIN: Thinking becomes clouded.  I forgot names constantly, and couldn’t come up with the right word that I wanted to say.  The feeling is hard to describe and can be very frustrating.   It is sometimes difficult to hold a conversation with someone, hard to understand what was said, process it and respond.  Ability to think slows down.  Have patience.

EMOTIONS: They change!  And may include increased crying, anger, and frustration.  Let the person vent, they need to get it out.  Have thick skin, don’t take their comments personally, they have lots of chemicals going through their bodies and comments probably don’t have a deeper personal meaning, they may just be the result of strange thinking from the strong medications.  (I would go to my room during bad mood days, shut the door and stay away from people until it passed).  Pray for your friend!

FATIGUE: It is very real and debilitating.  Your friend has a small amount of energy, and when it is gone it is gone.  They may need to sleep more, find it difficult to walk, go up and down stairs, etc.

ISOLATION: Cancer treatments weaken the immune system.  Don’t visit if you are sick or have been around someone who is sick.  Wash hands when entering the house, and possibly take off your shoes.  Continue to call or send cards, e-mails, messages, etc., when your friend’s immune system is down.  Let them know they are not alone.

SIDE EFFECTS FROM TREATMENTS: Your friend may not like their appearance (bald, weight changes, swelling, etc.)  Let them know you are glad to see them, that they are loved.  Burning sensations following radiation, soreness from surgery, and neuropathy pain with chemotherapy may make hugs uncomfortable.  Ask first.  Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation can be an issue with chemotherapy and radiation, and may occur unexpectedly.  Your friend may become unsocial because they are experiencing these symptoms.  Or they may prefer visits at home rather than going out.  Symptoms often hit without warning, so if they occur while you are with them stay calm, it is not the end of the world, and refrain from negative comments.  The person is probably already embarrassed.  Let them know it is ok.

III. Are there right words? 

Everyone is very different.  One person may want to be asked “how are you” another may dread it.  My friend hated it when nurses looked at her with sympathy.  She said, “I just wanted to be treated normally.”  She asked if it bothered me too and I responded, “No, I was already feeling sorry for myself, I thought others should too.”  People care and may not know how to express it.  Don’t let awkwardness deter you from reaching out to your friend.  Listen, pray, and love.  Love, love, love and pray, pray, pray. 

© 2014 Sara Nelson O’Brien

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