By Dr Jodie Fleming
Discovering you carry a high risk for developing cancer is distressing and even traumatic in some situations.
Life (and research!) tell us that one of the most effective coping tools we have as human beings are our social supports but the key is that it’s all about quality and not quantity with friendships. Just as our loved ones find themselves having to navigate the new high-risk cancer terrain they are travelling on, so too do we.
Here are some useful tips to offering great quality support.
Be a serial pest
Chances are, there’ll be many times your friend won’t ask for help. They won’t want to (insert response here):
- “be a burden”
- “bring down the mood”
- “be a whinger or complainer”
- “bore my friends by always talking about it”
So, don’t wait for them to ask. Show up on their doorstep frequently. Call, text, message, snapchat, DM… however you do it, just do it.
Give them permission to be
Your friend is going through a myriad of emotions. There’ll be highs and lows and everything in between and it’s important for them to feel all of it. So, let them. Simple. Don’t try to fix this because you can’t. Listen. Be a shoulder to cry on. Pass the tissues. Allow them to vent their anger and frustration and sadness and euphoria. All of it is normal, so create the space for your friend to express their feelings, no matter how uncomfortable it is for you. Remember, this isn’t about you.
Talk about it
This is not the time to bury your head in the sand. Your friend is living with the equivalent of Damocles’ Sword hanging over them. Talk about their increased risk of cancer. Name it. Don’t shy away from it. Begin the conversations, as they may be reluctant to (see above). Create the space and give them permission to talk about it whenever they want or need to. This doesn’t go away. Not ever. Sometimes they will cope better than others, your job is to go with the flow and make space for all of it. Check in regularly and ask about how they are coping with the cancer stuff specifically.
Do your research
There are so many resources available for family and friends to read in order to gain some understanding about what your friend might be facing. With some information on board, you will be able to put yourself in your friend’s shoes and empathise with what they are living with. It helps when you are listening to your friend to have an idea of the facts and the typical emotional experiences of someone in your friend’s position. It will also help prevent you from trying to ‘fix’ it with unrealistic advice.
Let them feel half-glass-empty
Telling someone to just stay positive isn’t for them, it’s for you, so allowing your friend to have time to accept and feel half-glass-empty is actually a good thing.
In a moment of difficulty it can be hard to see your friend so down, and in turn can become all too much for you. But, it’s important to remember that it is literally impossible to be positive all of the time, especially when you are faced with a high cancer risk. What is ‘normal’ is to feel all of the emotions, so let them. And being ‘positive’ doesn’t actually save anyone’s life.
Use your ears, and not your lips
No matter whether your friend’s cousin’s mother also has a high risk of cancer, remember, you are not an expert of coping with this news, nor does your friend expect you to be, so listen, hold their hand, and know that for them, that’s enough.
Offer practical help
Your friend is probably caught in an emotional tornado and it’s unlikely that they even know what they need from you and are even less likely to ask for help (see point 1). Don’t be the ‘if you need anything, just let me know’friend. Be the ‘I’ve come to fold your washing’ friend, or the ‘here’s a tray of lasagna for your dinner tonight’ friend. Have they got kids? Perhaps you could babysit so your friend can go out on date night and have some fun for a few hours. Maybe the lawns need to be mowed or they’d really just love for you to bake a cake to bring around so they have something to offer their visitors who might drop by. Think outside the square.
Seek your support elsewhere
Imagine your friend is in the centre of a series of circles. Every circle represents a layer of your support network with the closer friends being in the inner circles. Have a look at which layer you are on. Now here’s the rule. You can only ever seek support from someone on the same layer as you or an outer layer. The person in the centre of the circle has enough going on and they don’t need to be supporting everyone else through THEIR situation, so look after yourself by leaning on your alternate supports.
Finally, and possibly most importantly of all, if you don’t know what to say, say that!
Too often we fall into the trap in these difficult to navigate situations where when we don’t know what to say, we say nothing. This is more damaging than saying the ‘wrong’ thing. So, repeat after me, “I just don’t know what to say. This really sucks.” Bingo! You’ve connected, you’ve empathized, you’ve validated them and their experience. You are the world’s best friend!
Dr Jodie Fleming is the author of breast cancer memoir A Hole in My Genes, a book filled with her professional and later personal candid, raw experiences of being diagnosed with two primary breast cancers at the age of 37 and later discovering she is BRCA1 positive. A Hole in My Genes is filled with all of the psychological tools Jodie used to navigate her way through her own cancer treatment with a healthy amount of family dysfunction to boot. You can find A Hole in My Genes in all your usual online bookstores in hard copy and eBook. You can also join Jodie on one of her international Wellness Retreats. For more, visit her websites drjodiefleming.com.au or thepsychologyofit.com.au.