There is a timely (for me) article in The New Daily: “How to be a great friend to somone with cancer“.
It makes some common-sense suggestions, which is always good. The major suggestion, reading between the lines, is not to feel as if you — the friend — have to do anything different. Stay in touch. Suggest outings and get-togethers, as you normally would. (Obviously, if your friend has mobility issues as a result of their cancer, you will bear this in mind.) Have a chat, as you normally would. Don’t feel you either have to talk about their cancer, or not talk about it. The tip about not feeling you have to make the big speech is a good one.
You may be surprised — or not — at what people can get used to. It is eighteen months since I was diagnosed. A cancer diagnosis goes from being a rock your life has run aground on, to just another category label. Male. Retired librarian. Likes cooking, gadgets, and cars. Cancer patient. They are all facets of my life. Obviously I give the cancer priority, but all these things are part of who I am. So I think the article is on the money with emphasising normality. Aiming for this is part of how I manage.
In this vein, cancer patients learn that not everyone is cool with talking about mortality. This is totally understandable. There is a time and place for all these things. We are not a society that encourages discussions about death. Some people need to talk about it. Others find it easier not to get into the deep and meaningfuls. There is no one size fits all approach.
I guess being friends with a cancer patient is like being friends with someone recently bereaved. As the friend, you feel awkward and not sure of what to say. So you don’t say anything. As the article points out, that is totally fine. A hearts and flowers speech is not required. What is not fine is if you avoid the person because you feel awkward around them. Then they have to deal with their friends not seeing them as well as with their loss.
Of course the bereaved person, or cancer patient, has responsibilities for keeping the friendship going as well. I’m not terribly good at these things. So I am saying this to myself — friendship involves putting yourself out there and taking a risk.
Cancer patients come in different shapes and sizes. We can be in quite different spaces according to the stage we are at in our treatment. I am in remission and don’t have a prognosis. Someone like me is not going to feel the same as someone who has a prognosis and receiving palliative care. But people whose lives haven’t been affected by cancer can’t readily make these distinctions. When they hear the word “cancer” they assume the worst. We, the patients, have to remind ourselves of this. Everyone is on the same journey, but all starting from a different place.