When I received a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2009, my friend Caitlin was one of the first people I called. And when she came to see me, she said the perfect thing: nothing. Instead, she burst into tears, gave me a hug — and then took me shopping for wigs.
Caitlin has a genius for friendship. And because she had received her own diagnosis a year before, as a guide through breast cancer she was unparalleled.
She arranged for me to have eyebrows tattooed, so I would not look faceless when all my hair fell out under chemo. After my first treatment, she shaved my head in my kitchen sink. And after mymastectomy surgery, she presented me with a material assertion that there would be a life after reconstruction — a lacy bra.
Unfortunately, most people — even the most warmhearted — lack Caitlin’s intelligence and good sense. Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s new book is for us.
Ms. Pogrebin, a writer who, among other things, contributed to the founding of Ms., the feminist magazine, has produced a guide for people who have friends facing a wide range of troubles, including their own illness (or imminent death), the loss of a loved one, or the mental illness or drug addiction of a child.
She wrote it after her own bout with breast cancer, successfully treated with lumpectomyand radiation. It is full of the gaucheries of her well-meaning friends, but also the stories of friends and family members who have faced serious trouble, as well as accounts of fellow cancer patients she encountered in her journey back to good health.
A lot of her advice is common sense, but some of it is surprising.
As Ms. Pogrebin notes, greeting someone with the seemingly innocent question “How are you?” can prompt all kinds of unwelcome thoughts. Better, she advises, is a simple “It is good to see you.” For sure, you should not ask “How are you really?” If you are close enough to merit that information, it will come to you.
Like Ms. Pogrebin, I found it irritating when people told me they were inspired by my “battle” with cancer. Military analogies are not appropriate. Most of the time, being ill is not a battle. It is just an unpleasant experience.
Ms. Pogrebin has some other useful dos and don’ts.
■ Don’t talk about people you know who had something similar and are now fine.
■ Don’t tell your friend she looks great when it is obvious that she looks anything but.
■ Don’t say “I know what you’re going through” unless you actually do.
■ Do draw up a list of possible chores you could perform — picking up children at school, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn. Look and listen to cues from the sick person, or his caregivers, as to when it is appropriate to show up, and when it is a good time to leave.
■ Do realize that in the end you are powerless in the face of your friend’s illness, particularly if it is terminal. If you think a terminally ill friend wants to say goodbye, Ms. Pogrebin suggests, “gently open the door to a last conversation and leave it up to the patient to either close it or walk through.”
But perhaps the best advice Ms. Pogrebin offers is the simplest: Listen. Take your cues from the sick person.
That’s what Caitlin — and several other good friends — did for me when I was sick. I turned to those people often, and they never let me down, I think because they were paying such close attention to how I was and what I needed.
I wish I could say the same for me, when it came to helping Caitlin.
Because I can find writing therapeutic, I suggested she keep a journal — and even sent her a notebook to write in and a recorder she could dictate into. To cheer her through chemo, I sent her DVDs that I think are hilarious.
In short, I was doing for her what I might like someone to do for me. That was hardly the point.
But we forgive the lapses of our friends and hope they will forgive ours. Meanwhile, this book will help save us from a lapse or two.
Published: June 17, 2013
The New York Times