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How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick

By Heather Millar

friends

Last night, as I was cooking dinner and listening to National Public Radio, a voice came through the radio that I wish I had heard just after I was diagnosed. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, was talking about her recently published book, with the title of the headline above.

When Pogrebin was diagnosed with breast cancer, at 70, she was stunned by the varied, and often inappropriate, reactions of her friends.

Boy, can I relate.

One acquaintance told me that if I just stopped eating protein that I could cure my breast cancer.  Needless to say, I ignored that well-meaning advice. I am very skeptical of “miracle cures” of any kind.

I had one friend who got furious at me three days after my diagnosis.  My husband and I were going to be late for a stay at her beach house because I was getting endless scans and breast biopsies. Um, sorry we’re late for holiday because of this life-threatening disease! We’re not friends anymore.

Another friend’s reaction was to fret that because we were scheduled to move from New York to San Francisco three weeks after my diagnosis, she wouldn’t be able to make me casseroles when I was going through chemo. I thought it an odd reaction at the time. But then this friend actually flew cross-country to cook those casseroles during one chemo cycle. She remains one of my nearest and dearest.

Other close friends got cross with my husband. He wept for a week after my diagnosis. (His mother had had breast cancer, and died of a brain aneurysm.) They thought he should be strong for me —  even though I understood his reaction and kept telling him he could be strong later. Thankfully, they finally backed off, and our relationship recovered.

And then there were the statements from people I knew less well: “God only gives you what you can handle.” or  “Everything happens for a reason.” or “We’re all dying.” or “You think your breast cancer is bad, I had a cousin who was diagnosed with cancer and dropped dead in three weeks!”

While she was going through radiation treatment, Pogrebin interviewed 80 of her fellow patients, asking them what they really want from their friends and family.

Her book guides both patients and their loved ones to be honest with each other at the beginning of an illness so that the relationship can thrive and grow despite the pressures of cancer treatment. What do you say when bad news comes? What do you bring to the hospital or the sick bed? How long do you stay? How do we create a new etiquette of illness, one that helps the patient to really ask for what he or she needs?

Here are a few tidbits that I gleaned from Pogrebin’s radio interview and her book:

  • Loved ones should approach the newly diagnosed with this sort of air-clearing speech: “I want to be helpful to you, and I may not always be able to read your mind. Will you promise to be honest with me, tell me if I’m being overbearing, or giving you something you don’t need or want?”
  • Patients, be absolutely honest about what you need. Do want company? Do you want to be alone? Are you craving sweets? Or starchy foods?
  • Don’t bring flowers. Amen! Our New York apartment looked like a funeral home from all the bouquets that arrived within days of my diagnosis. I don’t know about you, but I would have preferred brownies. Or wine. Or good books. You’ll have your own preferences. Let your friends and family know what they are.
  • Don’t ask, “How are you feeling?” It’s an awkward question for someone who’s seriously ill.
  • Don’t insist that the patient check out this latest treatment or alternative cure, unless they ask for that advice. Most patients feel overwhelmed by an avalanche of information. They don’t have the energy to defend their treatment decisions to all and sundry.

There’s lots more in the book: How to interact with a friend who’s lost a child to illness; how to figure out a patient’s needs when they’re reluctant to tell you; what to say in different situations; how to understand the feelings of a friend who’s sick. (Hint: Pogrebin says kindness is empathy plus action. Try to understand. Then try to do something to make it better.)

Have you struggled with how friends and family have reacted to your illness? What helped? What didn’t?

 

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