Tips to better support a friend with blood cancer
When a friend reveals to you that they have been diagnosed with a blood cancer, it may come as a shock and you may find it very hard to respond. You may not know what to say – or what you shouldn’t say. You may have a lot of questions about their cancer, treatment and how it’s going to impact their life. You may feel scared, upset and helpless. You may feel like you have to do something. All of these are normal and valid responses.
Acknowledging your reactions and understanding what your friend needs from you are important steps to providing support.
When a friend breaks the news, different people react in different ways. Some feel great sadness, some empathy and some anger. There isn’t a right or wrong way how to react, but there are right and wrongs ways to display your reaction.
The first thing to remember is that this is your friend’s illness and though it may affect you, it’s not your illness. You don’t have to hide your emotions or fake empathy, but remember to be supportive. Take a moment to process the information. In that moment, consider what would be a helpful way to react and put the feelings of your friend first.
While it’s often not helpful to react negatively with anger or frustration, going too far the other way can also not be helpful. Pretending that everything is fine and reassuring too much can give the impression that you are not taking the gravity of the situation seriously.
Five things to say
Because everyone is different, everyone finds comfort in hearing different things. There is no definitive script that friends should follow, but there are a few topics that are generally well-received.
How can I help?
Not every cancer patient will want help from their friends, many want privacy during a time they are ill – which is their right. Offering your help, though, lets your friend know that you are there to support and offer assistance if needed. Just don’t forget that at some point, your friend may find themselves in a situation where they may need a favour – don’t back down on your offer.
You’re not alone
Offering reassurance that you are there to support your friend may seem obvious to you, but going through a potentially terminal illness can stir negative emotions and people may lose sight of who is there for them.
Where do we start?
The key word in this is ‘we’. Avoid asking questions such as ‘what treatment are you looking at?’ or ‘when is your next appointment?’ as these may reaffirm that this is their journey to walk alone. Take an active interest in it and look for ways to be of assistance.
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This is just an example to remind you that not every interaction with your friend for the foreseeable future must be about their cancer. Though their illness may be disrupting their world for a time, life does go on and you can help remind them of that. At the same time, its not helpful to brag about the great times you have had recently – reminding them of what they might have missed out on.
I love you
Depending on your friends’ diagnosis and condition, you may not have a lot of time left together. Even if their prognosis is very positive, don’t leave the way you feel about your friend unsaid. At the same time, don’t assume time is running out and you need to make a grand gesture.
Five things not to say
While there are many helpful things you can say or do to support your friend, there are some very damaging things that can be said, albeit with the best intentions. Here are a few things to avoid saying:
I know how you feel
Even if you have gone through a similar condition or have another friend or loved on gone through the same illness, you do not know how they feel. Everyone’s cancer journey is different. There is a very big difference between sympathy and empathy and pretending to know the journey your friend is on not only belittles your friends’ condition, it make you appear unauthentic.
You’ll be fine
Not only is this a lie, but your friend knows it’s a lie. Blood cancers can be life-threatening, and your friend is likely to be still coming to terms with that. Though its important to offer support and give hope, giving potentially false hope can be damaging to your friends’ mental health and your relationship.
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The reason you should not offer medical advice is simple: If you are not a doctor, you are not qualified to offer medical advice – even if you have read excellent reviews and seen a flashy ad on television. As well as not being qualified, any advice you may give may conflict any medications or treatment your friend is given. Leave the doctoring to the doctors.
How long do you have?
The human body is not a machine that can be programmed and a cancer prognosis cannot be predicted within a nanosecond. If your friend has been given a terminal diagnosis, reminding them of their fate is not helpful.
Thank goodness that’s over
If your friend has been told they are in remission or there is no sign of the cancer in their body, it often doesn’t mean the end of the road. Many patients endure trauma or secondary side-effects for potentially years after their remission. The cancer journey is never really ‘over’, only changing.
How to offer help
The first thing to keep in mind when offering help, is to remember that your friend may not want or need your help when you offer it. If your friend is in the early stages of diagnosis and hasn’t started treatment yet, they may not need anything from you, so don’t be offended when they turn you away.
On the contrary, if your friends’ condition declines and they do need your help, they may feel embarrassed or not be willing to ask for it. Consider speaking with their spouse or carer to ask how you can be of best help.
There are generally two kinds of ways you can help:
Helping physically means things such as cleaning their house for an hour or taking your friend to an appointment if they are unable to drive. There are countless ways to help physically, its just a matter of being creative and finding ways to help.
Helping emotionally may mean bringing over a board game or a pizza to watch the football. Just bringing your presence can be a huge emotional lift for someone living with a blood cancer. Once you are in their company, this is a good opportunity to talk about how they are feeling both physically and emotionally. As a friend, you may be a good resource to discuss any issues with your friends’ family or carer.
The treatments of blood cancers can be aggressive and have numerous side effects which result in a shift in emotional wellbeing.
Keep this in mind next time you speak to or visit your friend as they may be going through many changes in their life. This doesn’t mean just the physical changes they may experience as their body fights the disease, but the emotional drain that comes with it.
You may notice some physical changes such as hair loss, weight loss, nausea and pale skin, particularly if you haven’t seen your friend since before their cancer treatment began. There are other physical changes that you may not notice straight away, such as a change in taste and smell, fatigue and poor concentration.
Being diagnosed with a blood cancer can turn people’s lives upside-down and their feelings can reflect that. Many people have feelings of anger, extreme sadness, frustration and some even feel guilt. Some people may even become risk-takers and show reckless behaviour. Everyone is different. Remember that whatever your friend is feeling, it is completely fair and should be expected. As a friend, don’t try to change the way they are feeling, rather support them and help their transition into their new situation.
If your friend is able to go into remission and make a full recovery, you may again notice emotional changes, such as a feeling of resilience, a focus on priorities or a greater appreciation for life. However they may be feeling now, as a friend, you can be their sounding board to express how they feel and help your friend embrace their new look on life.
We can help
You can contact us direct, anytime to talk about the issues you are facing or just to let your feelings out in a safe and supportive environment. To speak with an experienced member of our support services team, call 1800 620 420 or email email@example.com.
Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.