Keeping Calm and Carrying on When a Friend Has Cancer

As I was mentally preparing for chemotherapy infusion #4 (out of 6) for breast cancer, a dear friend emailed a very timely question: How does one Keep Calm And Carry On when a dear friend is diagnosed with breast cancer?
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As I was mentally preparing for chemotherapy infusion #4 (out of 6) for breast cancer, a dear friend emailed a very timely question:

How does one


when a dear friend is diagnosed with breast cancer?

This question is especially timely because during my relatively predictable (one) strong week per month, I resurface and reconnect with the world as much as I possibly can ... which is what I did -- to the best of my ability -- last week.

Then comes chemotherapy ... today which is quickly followed by a period of 11-12 days in which I am off the radar-dark-closed-for-business ... beginning now.

Having FBC (F-bomb Breast Cancer) means living cyclically, with big ebbs and big flows.

So, to answer my inquisitive friend's excellent question, I would have to start with my #1 answer:

Don't take things personally.

My going underground has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but me and my reaction to the chemo coursing through my veins.

If, for example, I make a plan at 9:00 am to get together at 11:00 am and at 10:00 am, I cancel, it's not about the person whom I am meeting. It is extraordinarily difficult to predict at any given time how I am going to feel. Within a 10 minute period, I can feel 180 degrees opposite. Canceling has only to do with self preservation

Social graces are on hiatus during FBC. The things we take for granted in our polite society need to be forgiven because they are all but forgotten (or remembered at a socially inappropriate time).

Which reminds me: the memory loss affiliated with "Chemo Brain" is very (VERY!) real. I ask the poor HOTY (a/k/a Husband of the Year) the same question over and over and over and over again. I even know that I am asking the same question repeatedly, but cannot come up with the answer. Fortunately, he learned learned long ago NOT to take things personally (SL).

Here are some other responses to the question. They all revolve around the concept of Being.


Be present

Presence does not necessarily mean in the flesh. Presence can mean helping with childcare or dropping off food or running errands. These are all remarkable forms of presence.

Practice random acts of kindness in the form of dropping a note. Suggest a film. Propose a book, poem or quote. Forward a photo. All are examples of more beautiful presence.

Last week, a friend gave me a loaf of Banana Bread (that, to my horror, our dog Buzz proceeded to inhale). This same friend magically produced another loaf (which I proceeded to inhale). Loving presence.

It's the little gestures (or the grand ones, like producing two loaves of Banana Bread in a 24-hour period of time) that enable me feel a friend's presence. And these phenomenal forms of presence mean the world to me.

Be inquisitive

Ask your friend what would be helpful during the journey. It's okay if there is no answer. Or if the answer changes. Just being inquisitive is incredibly sensitive, thoughtful and generous.

Be patient

The last place I want to be is off the grid, detached from the world. I love living in the world. I miss my friends and being a part of my extraordinary community, locally and globally.

When I was Puke Face after the second round of chemo and had to cancel plans (again!) a patient friend eloquently said, "We will all be here when you feel up for whatever you fancy." I can't tell you how much that sentiment meant to me. To know that those people near and dear will still be there, on the other side, means so very, very much.

Be calm

No drama here. Really. Throughout this process, we have been cool, calm and collected (not without focused effort) because we have intentionally surrounded ourselves with friends who are calm.

It's not to say that there have haven't been a few requisite 'roid rage (from the steroids) or chemo-sobby episodes; however, calmness goes a long, long way in maintaining perspective and a Silver Lining attitude!

Fortunately, I maintain a sense of calm when people whom I haven't seen in a long time ask (with a hang-dog face) "How arrrrrrrre you?" GOOOOOD, I say. Or when I'm asked, "Are youuuuu okayyyyyyy?" YESSSSSSS, I say. (All the while thinking to myself: calm, calm, calm.)

Be honest and communicative

I encourage you to ask your friend how they prefer to communicate during treatment. For example, talking on the phone makes me nauseous, dizzy and cranky. It's just not how I roll.

Honest language is imperative in my life. Cancer is a word that scares people. Most often this comes from personal experiences. It's best to avoid comparing your experiences with cancer (or those about your brother's wife's friend's cousin) to the person with cancer. My suggestion would be to say, "I have an experience with cancer. Would you like to hear about it? If not, no worries."

For me, even though sharing experiences is well-intentioned, it's not how I roll. Personally, I'd much rather use the time to hear about a fabulous book that you read or a trip that you took or a how your family is doing.

In your communication, I suggest refraining from euphemisms. Use the proper terminology, e.g., breast cancer. I happen to have thrown an F-Bomb in for good measure. One person, knowing that I have breast cancer, said to me that she heard that I have a "problem." A WHAT?!? That reminds me of high school, when people would talk about the "monthly friend in town." WHAT?!?

If our daughter, aka Finally Five, can talk about breast cancer, using anatomically correct language, then grown-ups can do it too!

Another communication suggestion (or rather, imperative) is don't ever, under any circumstances, use the term "only" in the same sentence with "chemo", e.g., "You only have three more treatments left!" When people say this, I know (without a doubt!) that it comes from a good and encouraging place which is why I am able to refrain from convulsing. However, this is a biggie.

Be normal

Kvetch about the weather. Talk about the best (and worst!) dressed at the Oscars. Share the extraordinary things in your life. Witnessing a normal day is extraordinary to me.

Be persistent

Many people have told me that they "don't want to bother me." I appreciate the presumed sensitivity; however, there is nothing better to me that receiving a voice mail or email that says, "I'm thinking about you. You don't need to respond. Just know that you are in my mind." I receive these gestures every single day. They are fueling. And loving. And so deeply appreciated!

A friend is one of the nicest things you can have, and one of the best things you can be.

~Douglas Pagels

To read more about Hollye's holistic and humorous journey over, around, above and below breast cancer, please visit her blog, The Silver Pen ( You may email her at or follow her on Twitter @hollyejacobs.