Aging well: Communication key to supporting friends with cancer


Relay For Life

It's not too late to join a team for the fourth annual Relay For Life, which raises funds for cancer research, prevention and treatment. The walking event starts at 6 p.m. Aug. 7 at Steamboat Springs High School. Participants can register and donations can be made at www.steamboatrela.... For relay information, call Linda Jackson 819-1859 or Susan McIntosh 819-1429.


• The American Cancer Society has helpful information for caregivers, family and friends of individuals with cancer at

• "Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know," by Lori Hope. For more information, log onto

• Free personal Web pages that help friends, family and individuals facing illness communicate are available at and www.caringbridge....

• Volunteers, family and friends can create a private group calendar organizing help and assistance for someone in need at www.lotsahelpingh...

• The Cancer Care program at Yampa Valley Medical Center offers ongoing meetings and events aimed at providing cancer patients and caregivers helpful information and support. The next meeting, which will focus on the importance of exercise during and after cancer treatment, is from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday at SportsMed at YVMC. For more information, call Carol Gordon, 870-3232.

• Healthier Living Colorado is a free workshop for individuals with cancer and other chronic conditions and their caregivers. The workshop helps participants develop better communication and other strategies for coping with their illnesses. The classes are held periodically in Routt and Moffat counties and other area throughout the state. For more information about upcoming classes, call 871-7676.

An invitation for a walk or movie, a helping hand with laundry, an offer to give a person a ride to and from treatment.

Reaching out to a friend with cancer can be as simple as sending a thoughtful card or calling to ask how they are doing.

Unfortunately, cancer and fear go hand in hand, and this can cause people with the best intentions to become tongue tied and uncomfortable. They might say the wrong thing, hurt or irritate a person or make empty offers to help.

But that shouldn't prevent them from trying.

A little sensitivity and respect for an ill friend's situation can set the stage for a trusting relationship that, ultimately, provides the unwell person the support they need to cope with the immense physical and mental challenges of their illness.

Confronting a person's cancer can be difficult, but skirting around the issue can be hurtful to a friend immersed in one of the biggest fights of their lives.

When acknowledging a friend's situation, speak from the heart.

"I'm sorry to hear you are going through this," or "If you would like to talk about it, I am here," are example of statements that simply show a person cares.

Katy Thiel is a social worker at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association and former coordinator of a cancer support group now offered through the Cancer Care program at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

She notes that every person copes with cancer differently; some may be open about their condition while others pull inward. Reading their cues will let a friend know whether they want to talk more or if it's best to broach the subject again later.

It's important not to give up because, ultimately, that person likely will need to express thoughts and feelings about their illness.

"Bring it up and see where the person is : realize that you can't fix it, we just need to be there to let them vent," she said.

Lori Hope, a cancer survivor and caregiver writes about helping friends with cancer in her book, "Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know." The book is based on her own experience as a cancer survivor and caregiver, as well as surveys and interviews with other survivors.

In an interview with Time magazine, Hope suggests identifying with a friend with cancer as much as possible, recalling a time of great fear or sickness, what that felt like and how important it was to be hopeful.

A sick or vulnerable person, for example, probably does not want to talk about the latest world tragedy or other cancer stories. Instead, try to keep conversations light, talking about subjects the other person enjoys.

Be cognizant of how curiosity and concern sometimes can translate into a lecturing tone or inappropriate questions.

Avoid questions about lifestyle choices such as smoking that may have contributed to their illness or choices they've made about treatment.

"We really need to honor their way of doing things and their timeline of doing things," Thiel said.

Questions about a person's prognosis and whether they are in remission also were hurtful to some cancer survivors surveyed by Hope.

It's best not to impose unsolicited advice. If there's a book or study that may be of interest, simply ask the person's permission to share that, Hope said.

Use common sense to balance between being overly positive and overly negative.

Telling a person they should be resting instead of out doing something they enjoy can be discouraging and upsetting.

At the same time, telling a person to have a positive attitude can be patronizing and discount the many emotions they are experiencing. Let them know it's O.K. to have negative feelings and that depression is normal.

Although it's important to acknowledge a person's cancer and be available if they want to talk about it, it's also important to treat them as normally as possible by including them in activities and social events.

Individuals with cancer have a tendency to isolate themselves, so it's important to keep reaching out, even if they decline.

People fighting cancer often are exhausted; they need help but may be too proud to ask for it or too overwhelmed to take advantage of open-ended offers.

"People in general want to be strong. : Cancer often wipes them out, and they have a hard time reaching out," Thiel said.

If a person really wants to help a friend with cancer, they will think about what that person might need and make a specific offer, she said.

This article includes information from, and "How to Talk to a Friend With Cancer," a Time magazine article by Claudia Wallis.

Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at or 871-7606. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and better. For more information or to view past articles, log onto


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