The moment she walked through my front door and got a look at my headscarf and drawn-on eyebrows, she burst into tears. That’s when I knew it was going to be my job to make her feel better that I had cancer.
Maybe I looked more pathetic than she had steeled herself to see. Maybe I reminded her of her mortality. Maybe she wasn’t sure how to treat me now that I had cancer.
But it really didn’t matter why she was blubbering in my living room. It mattered that I had to console her when I’d simply been hoping for a nice diversion from the hell-hole of chemotherapy. Instead, I passed her the tissue box and assured her that I was okay.
Not okay in the physical sense. I mean, I had a tumor the size of a softball in my chest and several more rounds of chemo, plus a few weeks of radiation, ahead of me.
I meant that I was okay in that I was still me, still Jen. And no matter how I looked, I still liked to laugh and tell stories and hear about what was going on outside of the world of oncology and “What Not to Wear” marathons on TV.
And yet, I understand why she acted the way she did. She must have felt tremendous pressure to make me feel better or to fix the situation — a tall order indeed for cancer.
Since I’ve been in remission, many people have asked me what they can do to help a friend with cancer, and my answer isn’t always concrete, such as “cook for her,” nor is it always the same. It depends on the situation, and on the friend. But there’s something friends can always do that can be best summed up in a story I heard last week:
Mary, a woman I’d recently met, told me about the passing of her closest friend of more than five decades. She told me that the cancer reached her friend’s brain, making it difficult for her to communicate. But she did manage to ask Mary for some ice cream. Mary wasn’t sure which type of ice cream to get, so she bought several pints of ice cream in various flavors and put them in her friend’s freezer.
One day soon after, Mary found her friend eating from one of those pints silently at the kitchen table, spoon in hand. So Mary opened the freezer, pulled out a pint of ice cream, and, without a word, sat down next to her friend. Two dear old friends, one with a terminal cancer, sitting side-by-side, ate ice cream straight from the containers together. They said nothing — her friend couldn’t say much of anything and Mary really didn’t have to say a word. And in that moment, she did more to help her friend than anything she could have dreamed up on her way to visit her. She let her friend be herself, even as the cancer was taking her away from Mary.
Honestly, that’s the best thing you can do.