Last week, my best friend Karin died of cancer. I mentioned my friend’s condition last month in this post about designing a life you love. I took the week off to process the grief and the loss. It felt wrong to dive back into writing about design or travel without addressing it.
I’ve lived with the reality of my friend’s diagnosis for the last ten months, watching her journey and being by her side each day. I was there when she received those dreaded words, “You have cancer”. I was there through her chemo, through her surgery, through her follow up chemo, through her recovery when we thought she’d beat it. I was there when the CT scans showed the cancer was back with a vengeance, when her oncologist told her it was terminal, and when it took her life six short weeks later.
I thought today I’d share what I’ve lived and learned in the hopes it may help any one of you when a friend or family member receives a cancer diagnosis.
my friend Karin wearing her favorite dress on our trip to Paris in 2016
Do Your Research. This was my first exposure to a cancer diagnosis in someone close to me, so I took the time to learn about this disease. There are many forms of cancer and several stages of cancer and there is a lot of information online that will educate you. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are the three ways oncologists fight cancer. There are also experimental trials. My friend had colon cancer so learned everything I could about it, and what her options were for survival. By researching the disease, I learned the medical terminology and treatment courses and it helped so much when talking about it while she was going through treatment.
My friend was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, which has a tragically low rate of survivability. Her cancer was caught too late. She was a champion through multiple months of chemo and major surgery, but because her cancer had metastasized, it was able to spread quickly. This is a good time to mention to never ignore strange physical symptoms and to get yourself screened at the recommended age of 45.
Protect Their Privacy. When word got out that my friend had cancer, I was inundated with questions from well meaning friends. Karin was a very private person and did not want the details of her condition shared until she was ready to share them. I respected that and would only tell people the minimum amount of information. Ask your friend just how much they want people to know and protect that with all your power.
Keep visitors away if they don’t want to be seen. Honor their wishes to not be seen in a compromised condition. This was tough since so many of our mutual friends and family wanted to see her and hold her hand in those last weeks and tell her how they felt. If your friend doesn’t want to be seen looking sick, write a loving note, send flowers, make meals, or donate to their family’s expenses if there is a need. I count myself as very lucky to be one of the few that my friend allowed to be with her in her dying days, but don’t be offended if they request you stay away.
Be Their Advocate to Medical Professionals. There were times when my friend wasn’t getting the medical attention she needed so if you’re in the inner circle, make sure doctors and nurses are meeting the needs of the patient. I found it was also helpful to personalize the patient to nurses in the hospital or medical assistants doing procedures or tests. When they knew her story, it seemed they gave her a more sensitive and loving degree of care.
Offer Support Wherever Needed. In the beginning, my friend just needed an understanding ear and emotional support. We would have coffee together or take long walks together so she could share her fears and frustrations. We reminisced about our adventures together. Offering your time and friendship and a safe space for them to share is an incredible gift of support.
When the time came, we had talks about her assets and her will so she could make final arrangements. We talked about when hospice would be necessary, and when it was I was so relieved they were there to make her as comfortable as possible.
As Karin got sicker, she became angry and depressed, a completely normal reaction to the circumstances. There were times I felt I couldn’t bring her out of her deep depression, so I just sat by her side to comfort her. There were a couple of times her anger made her lash out, but I realized it was the cancer talking. These were both stages in her grief process. Her anger passed when she accepted that her time was short, and she was just grateful that I was there to tell her everything would be okay.
Rally The Community. As her health deteriorated, my friend needed more. Her husband stopped working and became her caretaker which meant there was no income to pay the monthly bills. Thankfully we had an overwhelming outpouring of financial support from the local community through a GoFundMe and a fundraising benefit. These helped immensely. There was also a meal train set up by the elementary school moms to bring meals to the house during a time of great need. Orchestrating and contributing financially is a great way to show support for a friend diagnosed with cancer.
Say What You Need to Say. Before she died, I told my friend how grateful I was that she has blessed me with her friendship, how inspired I am by her life, what a wonderful mother she is, and how much I love her. I told her our friendship continues because I would continue to live the same way and to do the same things to honor her memory. It gives me peace knowing that she knew how very much I loved her and how much I treasured our time together.
Watching my best friend die from cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced, and it’s changed me. It’s made me appreciate life even more. It’s made me even kinder to strangers. It’s compelled me to tell everyone I care about at every opportunity that I love them. Her death does not end our friendship. We traveled together, we had so many crazy adventures together, we worked out together, we enjoyed life together; her legacy is woven into my life as I continue to do those things.
Karin wanted everyone to realize that each day we are alive is a gift. Be happy that you are healthy, that you have a home and food on the table, and people around you that you love. In the end, nothing else matters.
I recommend this book on preparing for a meaningful death, it’s titled No One Has to Die Alone and it was full of wisdom and helped me know what to do and what to say when my friend was facing death.
If any of you have any insight or experience on how you handled a friend or family member’s diagnosis with a terminal disease, please feel free to share. Thanks for listening today everyone. Be back soon. :)