Few things in life will freak people out like a cancer diagnosis. When I got mine, truth be told I was more irritated than anything – after all, I had plans! I was jetting off to Peru in just a few days to teach a disaster management course and I didn’t have time for this cancer shit. I still don’t, but there’s little choice, isn’t there? You have to make time. One of the common questions that I get now is “what’s it like to be told you have cancer?” Well, it sucks, and I’m sure you all can figure that out for yourselves. But what is harder to figure out is what your life will be like after that diagnosis (aside from a very annoying array of tests, pokes, prods, scans, surgeries, appointments, side effects, and medications), and one of the most surprising aspects is how much your social life is going to change. I’m referring to the fact that a lot of people can’t cope with hard things, and a friend with cancer is apparently a very hard thing to cope with. This seems to go double for people who live active lifestyles, as outdoorsy people tend to glom together just for the sake of having activity partners and aren’t that good at actual friendships. I won’t bore you with gory details, but you would not believe the dumb, inconsiderate, and just plain awful things people have done once they found out I had cancer. With that in mind, I put together this handy guide of do’s and don’ts when one of your outdoor partners ends up with the big C. If you care about your friends, this guide will help you help them:
1. Spend time with your friend, doing things she’s able to do. She’s probably not going to be into epic climbs for a while, but that’s not reason to ditch her. Take her out for a fun hike, climb, ski, or whatever she wants to do, and make damn sure you go at her pace.
2. Help your friend out – you know, be an ACTUAL friend to her, not just a beacon buddy. So she can’t go skiing with you today because she has a radiation appointment; maybe instead you could pick her up and drive her to her appointment and take her out to lunch after. Your tram laps can wait, can’t they? After all, your friend might not be able to ski at all; maybe try to give up a day of your own skiing to help her not feel completely abandoned by everyone she knows. Dropping your ski day to support your friend is one of the nicest things you can do for her.
3. Make your friend laugh. Let me tell you, cancer is HILARIOUS. From the well-meaning library of self-help books in the waiting room (my two favorites so far: “Finding the CAN in Cancer” and “Crazy Sexy Cancer.” I wish I were making these up, but I am not) to the ridiculous hoops patients must jump through for treatment (most common hoop: expensive and annoying pregnancy tests, lots and lots of them. Doctors are more interested in the health of a fictional nonexistent hypothetical fetus than they are in the actual woman they are treating for a life-threatening disease. Hysterical, right?), there is a lot to laugh at in the cancer industry, but it’s even better to laugh at other stuff. Show your friend a good time. Just getting together and having fun non-cancer-related conversations with funny friends is some of the best therapy.
4. Take up the burden of making plans. This can be tough with a sick friend, as energies are limited and she probably needs to have a lot of input into the plans to make sure they’re not too much for her. But just having someone willing to make them and do the logistics is a huge gift. Whether it’s jetting off to relax in Hawaii for four precious days or just driving to the beach to watch the sunset, set it up and execute it so that all your friend has to do is show up (and by show up, I mean, walk out her door and into your car, because you are picking her up, right?) and enjoy the excursion.
5. Include your friend in your plans. This one is tricky, especially if she’s really feeling badly. It might hurt if you invite her on a trip you know she can’t do, but don’t just make the plans without her, ignoring her existence. At the very least, call her and tell her you know she isn’t going to want to come, but you wish she was able to. Do anything to make her feel less abandoned (did I mention I had a spinal injury before cancer? I haven’t been able to do much for a while but it still hurts to not even be invited on trips. Believe me, sick and injured people will not join you on trips they can’t do, but they appreciate the gesture of an invitation). And if you do go on a trip she can’t hack right now, tell her you’ll be thinking of her and make sure you make plans with her (see Do #1) immediately after.
1. Don’t ghost your friend because you are uncomfortable. If YOU are having a hard time with this, how do you think SHE is feeling? Suck up your icky uncomfortable feelings and be there for your friend. And if you DO ghost her, do her a favor and don’t try to get back in touch when she feels better and pretend that nothing ever happened. If you do this, you’re a jerk and your friend is way better off without you.
2. Don’t shame your friend for not being able to do the things she used to do. Guess what – cancer treatment takes a lot out of people, for a long time. Believe me, your friend wants to be her old self WAY more than you want her to be. It’s not her fault she doesn’t have the energy she used to have, or can’t accommodate your every whim and want. Don’t just bitch that she’s not in for long, hard days right now. Be thankful she can spend any of her limited energy on you at all and if she does, pro tip: thank her for doing so. Let her know you appreciate her willingness to give you her energy. She doesn’t have a lot to spare.
3. Don’t conveniently forget that your friend is going through an extended shitty time. Yes, it sucks that cancer dominates a lot of the conversation, but that is, in fact, what’s happening to your friend so don’t ignore it. Remember to ask her how she’s doing, what you can do to help, let her know that you know she’s dealing with some terrible things. I’m one of the lucky ones who will likely make a full recovery (I got one of the GOOD cancers, yay), but it’s still CANCER, you know? It could be that your friend doesn’t have one of the readily treatable types of cancers and might be facing down her own death. SHE has to deal with it, so maybe you can ease her burden by picking up a part of it and helping her carry it. Don’t pretend this isn’t happening to her.
4. Don’t be self-absorbed. Don’t act like your dumb sporting pursuits are the most important thing in the world. They are not. Don’t bug your friend with yammering on about your latest gear purchase. She’s probably going broke from medical bills and doesn’t want to hear it from you right now; your gear is not important. Your relationships with other living beings are the most important things in the world whether you have matured enough to realize this or not. I’ve said this before in regards to other topics, but if your best buddy is your bicycle, you’re in love with your skis, or you spend more time seam-sealing your latest tent or selecting this year’s hard shell jacket than you do spending quality time with friends, stop being such a crappy and self-involved person and help your sick friend deal with her illness. Actually you might just be excused from all this, because the last thing cancer patients need is to have to deal with people who can’t think of anything besides themselves (see Don’t #1).
5. Don’t expect her to be back to normal very quickly, and adjust accordingly. When she’s cleared to go out and play outdoors again, she may be dealing with new medications, residual side effects, being out of shape, generally running low on energy, and other long-term issues. She’s not likely to be as fast or fit as she was before. Don’t just ditch her to struggle back to full strength on her own; slow your roll and enjoy your time with her. So what if you can’t make any Strava records during that time – being a good friend is a reward in itself. You’re lucky you still have your friend at all, so take one for the team and maybe skip training for your latest pointless race to help your friend win hers.