My hair fell out on a Friday; I was enduring breast cancer treatments. To prove his solidarity, my husband attacked his thick, silver hair with an electric razor that was as out of control as our lives appeared to be.
Friends and family members of cancer patients suffer, also. They often struggle with fear and feelings of helplessness; however, there are practical ways to assist people with breast cancer that encourage humor, hope, and joy for both the cancer patient and her loved ones.
Be there physically. According to Dr. Gary Chapman, Quality Time is one of the five primary ways that we demonstrate love. This is never more crucial than when a person is in crisis. Take time to listen, pray, or simply sit in silence. Make your friend a “time” priority.
Be there emotionally. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”(Romans 12:15 NAST) Three friends went with me to find a wig. I tried on a spiky, black wig; an imitation of goldilocks; and a short, sassy red wig. We laughed through the entire episode and had lunch together afterwards. A dreaded event became a surprisingly fun day.
There were other days, though, when I struggled with the fear of the unknown. My husband and mother went with me to every chemotherapy appointment. My husband still goes to all of my oncology appointments. It’s not that I can’t do it without him, but he knows that his physical presence offers emotional support.
Be there spiritually. Friends and family members who prayed for me daily were a special blessing. If your friend is open to discussion, encourage her gently with truth from Scripture. My dad, a cancer survivor himself, would gently remind me of God’s character and the eternal hope that He offers.
- Because cancer treatment can cause fatigue and nausea, call in advance to plan your visits.
- “Carry in” a tea party. Bring flavored teas, muffins, your best china, and a few special friends.
- Call, e-mail, and send cards. Time your phone calls when you are fairly sure your friend is not resting. Cards and emails can be read over many times to lift the spirits.
- If you are a breast cancer survivor, help your friend think through treatment options. Encourage her to speak to her doctor if you feel things are amiss.
- Pray with your friend weekly.
Be Quick to Listen and Slow to Speak
When you can’t think of anything to say, don’t talk. Sometimes in our effort to fill the empty space of silence, we ramble on – clueless to the damage that our words may be causing. “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 29:20 NIV) Sometimes it is just better to weep with those who weep.
- Before you speak, pray. Ask God for wisdom in giving words of encouragement.
- Don’t begin any story with, “My Uncle Henry, Aunt Suzy, or Cousin Harriet … died of cancer. If you must tell someone these cancer death stories, tell your cat. They are daggers of despair in the hearts of those fighting cancer.
- Avoid horror stories of treatment that will only cause your friend to be fearful. Don’t tell her that you have heard that she will be green for six years, that all of her fingernails will fall out, or any other old wives’ tail. Besides, not everyone responds to treatment in the same way. Your friend may respond to treatment without major negative side effects.
- Tell your friend funny stories, jokes, and humorous happenings.
- If you believe God has given you a verse to share with your loved one, ask her first if she would like to hear it. Gentle reminders are much different than preachy “get your faith together” statements that ring of judgment. Sometimes people already know the “right answers”, they are just struggling through the tidal waves of emotion that go with a cancer diagnosis. On the other hand, don’t avoid sharing Scripture passages if you believe God is leading you, and the person to whom you are ministering is clearly receptive. Some of my most comforting verses came from other people’s intuitive understanding of my need and God’s leading.
- Tell every cancer survivor story you know starting with, “My Uncle Harry, Aunt Suzy, or Cousin Harriet… who is now 112 years old, once had cancer ….”
- Do not gasp when she tells you the size of her tumor or her cancer staging.
- Don’t tell her that her eyebrows and eyelashes are missing, her wig is backward, or that her skin is yellow. OK, you can tell her if her wig is backward. Otherwise, keep it positive.
- Tell your friend how much you love her and what she means to you. Give specific examples of how she has blessed you.
My mom stayed with us for four days after each chemotherapy session to care not only for me, but also for the needs of my family. The backbone of ministry is practical service. Do not wait to be asked. It is very difficult to request assistance, especially if it is going to be a long-term situation. Offer specific ways that you are available to help.
- Drive your friend’s children to needed appointments and lessons.
- Arrange for your church or small group to bring meals for the first few days after each chemotherapy treatment.
- Organize several people to clean your friend’s house, or hire a housecleaner.
- Do the family’s laundry.
- Take your friend to doctor’s appointments, chemotherapy, or radiation sessions. If they are up to it, take them out for lunch afterwards.
- Lend your friend your favorite CD’s and movies.
- Create a chemotherapy survival kit. Include straws to encourage her to drink plenty of fluids, hard candy to help with metallic taste from chemotherapy, an uplifting CD, a humorous book, and a journal.
- Go with her to a Look Good, Feel Good seminar designed to help breast cancer patients with make-up tips.
- Support cancer research, relays, and organizations in your friend’s honor.
One of the best gifts we can give is laughter. My girlfriends threw a hat shower for me. When I walked into the room, twenty women greeted me in hats of all sorts of ridiculousness: a Dr. Seuss hat, a hat with horns, a polka dot hat, even a hat with a duck on it. They tucked money into an American Cancer Society catalog so I could buy head coverings of my choice while supporting cancer research. When my girlfriend was diagnosed with breast cancer two years later, we showed up at her doorstep in those same goofy hats.
- Throw a hat party.
- Design a lap quilt. On the quilt squares ask friends to write encouraging notes, favorite memories, or Scripture verses.
- Arrange for friends to take turns dropping off anonymous gifts every day for a week following each chemotherapy session.
- Send a funny card once a week.
- Include your friend’s children in fun activities and family outings, or if they are older, take them out for coffee. When a friend of mine was dying of cancer, her daughter would “hang out” with my girls. It gave the child a break from the hard realities of life and allowed her to just be a kid instead of needing to care for her mom.
- Tell funny stories.
- If it is Christmas time, bring your youth group over to sing carols.
- During breast cancer awareness week, send a yearly card telling her you are still praying for her.
Gary Chapman says we demonstrate love through words of encouragement, acts of service, gifts, physical touch, and quality time. Consider each of these channels, and find your own creative ways to demonstrate your love for a breast cancer patient.