Nearly two decades ago, Afton DeVos was a healthy, active 17-year-old girl when she discovered a tennis-ball-sized lump on her neck one morning during her high school’s Christmas break. “It developed overnight,” she says. Afton was diagnosed with Stage 3-B Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This type of cancer is highly treatable, “so I wasn’t necessarily fearful for my life,” recalls Afton. “But I was concerned about getting through a very difficult season in my life.”
Afton underwent treatment for seven months and during that time, she learned that not everyone knows exactly what to say or do for someone who’s on a cancer journey. “People sometimes feel awkward,” explains Afton. “And that’s OK. If you haven’t personally been through cancer treatment, how would you know what to do?”
Because she went through treatment at a young age, Afton’s had ample time to reflect on the “do’s” and “don’ts” of caring for someone who’s received a cancer diagnosis. Because Afton has been so open about her cancer journey, she frequently gets asked for caregiving hints. Afton keeps a list of tips on her phone, which she texts to friends who ask for advice.
Tips for helping a close friend or family member with cancer
Accompany them to treatment. If the person is a close friend or family member, offer to go with them to a chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Or, offer to sit with a sick child while their parent runs an important errand. Remember that primary caregivers (such as parents, spouses, partners) shoulder the brunt of transportation to appointments. It can be an overwhelming time commitment, remembers Afton. Her parents worked outside the home full time so it was a huge relief to have a trusted friend accompany Afton to appointments.
Bring a meal or set up a meal schedule. Offer to bring a meal to the family. Are you super-organized? Set up a meal delivery system. Afton uses the website Take Them a Meal, which allows you to coordinate meal planning for a group of people who want to furnish a meal for families going through the cancer journey. Afton reminds us that people going through cancer often have special diets you need to accommodate, or certain food aversions, so you need to check to see what they are able to tolerate.
Tailor your care to their specific situation. Think of the everyday elements of your friend or family member’s life. What practical help can you provide that would make a difference in their daily routine? Here are some specific suggestions.
- If a child is being treated for cancer, perhaps get a couple of sturdy travel coffee mugs for mom and dad who will be trekking to appointments and will need a constant drip of caffeine.
- Luxurious pajamas are always a winner, as kids and adults alike spend a lot of time in bed or the hospital. “People will want to visit you, and you want to look nice, but you also want to be comfortable,” says Afton.
- Offer a cleaning service to come to their home.
- Offer to watch their children or pets, or pick the kids up from school/after-school activities
Stick around for the “middle.” “Everyone is interested in the dramatic beginning,” recalls Afton. The middle is where cancer patients find that the going gets tough. “People who stick around for the boring middle parts are the best kind of friends,” offers Afton.
Tips for helping someone with cancer from a distance
- If you are a long distance from your friend or family member, consider sending a flowering plant. “It’s a reminder of life during a dark season. Something like an amaryllis that blooms over a long period of time is a good choice,” says Afton.
- Send a handwritten card. Don’t underestimate the power of a thoughtful card with words of hope, prayer or concern.
Things to avoid saying or doing if someone has cancer
“It’s never a mistake to reach out,” says Afton. However, she found there were a few mistakes that people tended to make when they interacted with her during treatment. Here is Afton’s list of “don’ts” when caring for someone with cancer.
Give them books. If someone is going through cancer, rarely do they want to read about cancer. Plus, many people don’t feel well enough to read, even if the book is on a topic they would normally enjoy.
Say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” They won’t ask you. When someone is experiencing a lengthy illness, they have a hard time knowing what to ask for. Or, they feel like they’re imposing by asking for help. Instead, advises Afton, “Just pick something and then do it.”
Say “This is God’s plan.” “Even though I believe that God has a plan for me, I do not believe that His plan was for me to get sick,” says Afton. Instead, say something like, “I’m praying that God will give you the strength you need to get through this illness.” This is a much more supportive statement.
Recently, Afton DeVos reached a significant milestone: “I have now officially lived my life longer as a cancer survivor than the number of years before my diagnosis,” reports Afton. The 17 years that have passed since the beginning of her cancer journey have afforded Afton a perspective few get to consider in their mid-thirties. We at Wisdom of the Wounded are very fortunate to benefit from Afton’s wisdom. And we thank Afton for sharing it with our readers.
About Afton DeVos: Afton is Associate Director for Kids’ Food Basket, an organization that empowers communities to attack childhood hunger. She is a 17-year cancer survivor. Afton and her husband live in Grand Rapids, Michigan with their two children.