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Reaching out: How to help someone facing cancer

At the recent Ribbon of Hope luncheon benefiting Kettering Medical Center Foundation’s Women’s Wellness Fund, featured speaker Christine Clifford told this true story.

“At age 40 when I came home from the hospital, the door bell rang,” related Clifford, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994.

It was the florist and her youngest son answered the door.

“More flowers for your breast!” he shouted upstairs to his mom. At that point, said Clifford, she knew she was going to survive.

It’s that kind of humor, insists Clifford, that has gotten her — and so many others — through cancer. She’s authored a number of funny books including her first, “Not Now, I’m Having a Bad Hair Day!” Her company, The Cancer Club, produces a line of humorous and helpful products for people facing cancer.

“Humor is part of everyday life, so it’s helps us get back to a place where we feel normal and that helps our recovery process,” she believes. “And it feels a lot better to laugh than to cry.”

Her suggestions for cheering up a friend in treatment? A humorous card, a funny movie, a good joke or cartoon.

Testing friendship

Author Letty Pogrebin offers other types of tips and suggestions in her new book “How to Be a Friend to A Friend Who is Sick.”

Pogrebin, who lives in New York, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. For her book, she interviewed fellow patients who were sitting with her in the waiting room at New York’s Sloane Kettering Hospital where she went for treatment. Many, she says, were willing to share their personal experiences and advice.

While she came to understand that friends had good intentions, Pogrebin says they often made comments that weren’t helpful or appreciated such as “It could be worse” and “God only gives you as much as you can handle.”

“People pour out advice because they feel powerless and they want to give you something,” says Pogrebin, whose first piece of advice for those who want to help is to put a screen across their lips and filter what’s about to come out of their mouths.

“Ask yourself, ‘Would I want to hear this if I were in this situation?,’ ” she suggests and tells a story of a woman whose husband, a firefighter, died in 9/11 in the World Trade Center.

A man, who had just emerged from prostate cancer surgery, was visited by a friend who asked how it had gone. The patient said: “Great! They got it all!”

“Oh yeah, how do you know?” the “friend” responded. “That’s not what you want to hear, you don’t want a seed of doubt planted by your best friend,” says Pogrebin.

Ask yourself, she says, whether what you are about to say is going to be helpful or comforting or just make things worse.

Avoid cliches

“What can I bring?” and “What can I do?” are simply too generic, says Pogrebin.

“You need to make clear that you mean it, you need to say: “Listen, I know everyone asks how they can help you, but I really mean it and I need you to tell me exactly that I can do to help you.”

Forget the cliches and the etiquette, she says. Establish honesty as soon as you can by saying these three things to your friend who is ill:

  • Tell me what’s helpful and what’s not. Offer specific suggestions, and you’ll know whether your friend wants you to take her kid for a while or mow her lawn or buy groceries.
  • Tell me when you want to be alone and when you want company. That way your friend can tell you when she’s nauseous from the chemo, or when she’d welcome a text but not a visit. Never drop in without notice. We’ve all been raised to be polite so your ill friend may feel she has to make conversation even when she’s not in the mood.
  • Tell me what to bring and when to leave.

Pogrebin says those in the hospital usually don’t need another bouquet of flowers.

“But it may be chilly and she might need a warm throw,” she suggests. “Or their favorite strawberry yogurt might taste so good to her.”

If friends or relatives are readers, find out if they still feel like reading and what books they might enjoy.

When it comes to taking meals, Pogrebin advices avoiding one more tuna casserole and mac-and-cheese. Find out what kind of food would taste good to them, coordinate meals with other friends. Be sure to find out if they have dietary restrictions.

A contribution to an organization that is doing research on their form of cancer is always a thoughtful gift. So is the offer of a ride to chemo or radiation.

“For the cost of a big floral display, you could give someone a tank of gas,” suggests Pogrebin.

When you don’t know what to say or bring

For those friends or family members who are at a loss, Pogrebin suggests the honest approach: ” You know I have to admit to you that I don’t know how to be helpful and I’m feeling frustrated by my own inadequacy.”

As for gifts, she cites this example from her book.

“You know I’m going to bring something, so I might as well bring what you want,” one woman said to her friend.

Responded her friend: “OK, bring lamb chops!”

Books that help

Will Schwalbe, who chronicled the experiences he shared with his mother during her cancer treatment in his book “The End of Your Life Book Club,” is coming to town as the guest of Hospice of Dayton on Oct. 28.

He’ll give a free presentation at 7 p.m. that night at the Victoria Theatre. (To register, go to

While sitting in waiting rooms, Schwalbe and his mother began reading and discussing books together and found that books “can be comforting, astonishing and illuminating, changing the way that we feel about and interact with the world around us.”

We asked Schwalbe what books he’d give to a friend with cancer.

“Our family was so lucky to find books with wonderful advice for people who’ve been diagnosed with any serious illness, and for their friends and families,” he says. “A book that was particularly important to us was “The Etiquette of Illness: What to Say When You Can’t Find the Words” by Susan P. Halpern.

“It was this book that taught me to ask me mother if she wanted to talk about how she was feeling, not just to blurt out, ‘How are you feeling?” he explains. “It put her in control and gave her an ‘out’ on the days when she didn’t want to talk about her illness or had just talked about it too much.”

Schwalbe also recommends two other books which he labels “remarkable with tremendous wisdom.”

One of them is Pogrebin’s book; the other is “Survival Lesson” by Alice Hoffman.

“Both have wonderful advice for how to be helpful when someone you love isn’t well,” Schwalbe says. “And just the act of sharing these books and talking about them — or really sharing any book that touches on themes of illness — allows people an opportunity to discuss their needs and the things that help and don’t.”

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