The circle of support in the critical moments of the cancer journey

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I caught up with Dan, a friend of mine since college. He is an artist in Philly, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He had asked me about being an oncologist, told me he had read my ASCO blogs.

We spent hours discussing everything—parenthood, careers, and mutual friends, and one in particular. Her name is Lynn, and she has metastatic breast cancer.

We discussed how hard it must be for her—to strive for normalcy and maintain the roles she plays, as mom, professional, and friend, among other roles, in such an abnormal situation.

“At times she seemed resolved to a shortened life span; at other times, she seemed hopeful for the future. What a weird state to exist in, for anyone,” Dan observed.

Although my role as an oncologist is principally the treatment and care of the cancer survivor, my own personal experience with Lynn has made me appreciate the significant impact of cancer on those that surround her—her social network, and how difficult it is for us to navigate the world of cancer affecting those we love.

In short, how can we support our friends yet not overwhelm them or burden them with our own needs (e.g., to be with them, to get more information)?

On a recent phone call with Lynn, she had confessed that living with metastatic disease was exhausting. She had so many fears and concerns about the future, her husband, her children. What would happen to them after she died? Would her children remember her? Yet, she was not prepared to discuss this with those she was closest to. I suppose for now, it was her only method of protecting them, and her.

I suggested that she utilize me and others in her social network as her sounding board—as a way to share painful thoughts, profess the fears she has hidden from those closest to her, without fear that she will be hurting us. I ended up giving the same advice to Dan—that the best way “to be” with Lynn (despite the distance that separates us) was to be available for her—to listen to her and follow her lead and engage in whatever conversations take place, no matter how hard they may be for us.

For me, it meant putting away my urges to obtain medical information and to give unsolicited medical advice—it meant being there to listen.

It appears to me that in critical moments in the cancer journey, one relies upon a circle of support made up of those most immediate and important to her—her spouse, kids, parents, and one or two local and close friends. This becomes her proverbial lifeline in an otherwise treacherous journey where the most precious thing in the world is time.

Yet, even surrounded by this close circle, there are thoughts and fears that she does not (will not) share—whether because they are too painful for her, or she perceives them as too painful for those she loves the most. For my friend Lynn, this is where those of us (not in that primary circle) could help, and in a sense, feel needed.

Ultimately, physician or not, when those close to us face a life-threatening illness, we can only do what we can—extend our support in whatever form is necessary, pray she is not suffering, and that when her time comes, hope she will be at peace. Perhaps, that is enough.

What more could one ask of a friend?

Don S. Dizon is an oncologist who blogs at ASCO Connection, where this post originally appeared.

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