The statistics speak for themselves – and it’s only becoming harder to ignore the headlines’ shouty predictions that almost half of us will develop cancer during our lifetimes. But despite this and the range of coverage and discussion dedicated to this umbrella of diseases, it’s not something you ever imagine happening to you – or a friend. So how are you meant to react when it does?
This became my dilemma in 2011, as I found myself with Hodgkin Lymphoma at the age of 15. Lymphoma is a blood cancer with symptoms including night sweats, breathlessness and a lump in the neck, and although Hodgkin only forms 1% of all UK cancer cases, it’s one of the most common in young adults. During my five months of chemotherapy and steroids, I learned that adopting a positive attitude is helpful, but also that cancer is complicated business with over 200 different types, an array of treatment plans, and every patient responding differently, both physically and mentally. However, there are some general pieces of advice that should help you to navigate when you’re trying to figure out how to deal with a friend’s diagnosis. 1. Remember they’re still them, and your friendship is still your friendship. Granted, cancer barges into lives and disrupts a lot in its wake, but it doesn’t have to disrupt everything in its wake. At first, it might be natural to feel a little awkward or unsure of the right thing to say, but try to cast that to one side. Instead, realise you’ve never felt awkward or unsure of the right thing to say during all your previous post-night-out debriefs, girl-power pep talks or entire weekends bingeing on Netflix, the comfortable silence only broken by the sound of you working through your combined body weight of Domino’s pizza. (Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk) 2. Don’t remove yourself from their life for fear of doing the wrong thing. Cancer can get rid of, even temporarily, plenty of things – hair, confidence, the ability to look to the future worry-free – so don’t add yourself to the list. This is a time where your support is probably going to be appreciated the most, so never be afraid to show it. 3. Try to find the right balance. You should remember point one – don’t make things feel forced or pressured, but bear in mind that their perspectives may have altered a little. Facing an illness like this means your friend is bound to reassess various elements of life, so they might consider some issues trivial by comparison. However, it’s likely that they’ll be spending so much time in the new territory of a medical environment, so will simultaneously welcome more light-hearted topics of discussion. It means a lot to ask how they’re doing and complete little acts of kindness, and of course you’re still entitled to a moan or three about another disastrous date or your summer diet plans accelerating out of the window quicker than it takes you to get to the fridge. But just remember that they’re going through something worse. (Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk) 4. Slot into their new routine. It’s productive to make plans – as well as showing you care, it breaks up the routine of hospital, which, let’s face it, often means horrible side-effects at worst, and uninspiring monotony at best. Whether they can manage a weekend away, afternoon tea in a pretty place, or an 11am cuppa accompanied by Holly and Phil, it all makes a difference. But make it clear that you don’t mind if they have to cancel or aren’t the liveliest conversationalists – responses to treatment can be unpredictable.
5. Put yourself in your friend’s shoes. Even if they always looked at home in Louboutins (or Louboutin knock-offs, we’re not judging) while you can just about stay in a straight line in a pair of Converse, what they’re going through should be at the forefront of your mind when you’re together. While you can’t pretend to know exactly how they’re feeling – during treatment, I only knew other teenagers with cancer from hospital or charity groups – you haven’t lost the ability to empathise. And this period of life is one where empathy is a trait you really want to keep close.