bad news

Bad News

So your friend just told you the bad news. Here's what to do, who to talk to, how to avoid sounding like a jerk, and how to respect everyone's privacy on the internet and in real life.

published_at: 08.06.2015 13:51
question: • Good habits: eat, sleep, and exercise

If you make any changes yourself, try to adopt slightly healthier habits than usual. Have a go­to activity that calms you down ­ running, cooking, writing, meditating, puppies, hopscotch...schedule time​for that activity and keep it sacred.​H​ere are three rules for feeling good:

Sleep well + eat enough. Food, energy and emotional states go hand in hand. See what it’s like —​you may notice a difference in your outlook and demeanor if you’re intentional about eating three square meals a day and sleeping a full eight hours. Now’s a good time to ramp up the fruits and veggies too. And don’t forget to stay hydrated!

Exercise. Whether you go for a walk, do some jumping jacks or try a full on cardio spin, get moving to release endorphins and stay sane. Be thankful for your body, whatever shape it’s in, and get moving. You might be amazed at how much pent up anger, frustration, and negative energy you can release through exercise. Schedule time — 15 minutes, an hour, whatever — and stick to it.

Minimize drinking and hard drugs. A little can be fun. It will help you relax and maybe take your mind off of things. A lot is a dangerous path to take, especially at this moment. Some people will want to party harder; others will become reclusive. Our best advice is to be sure you’re enjoying life and avoiding hangovers. Now’s not the best time to try out new party drugs, but certain
substances exist for a reason, and Xanax is helpful in times of high anxiety. Just don’t tell anyone you heard that from us, okay? And It’s obviously totally not okay for your friend to share her drugs ;)

My friend just got bad news...

We’re so, so sorry.

Wherever you are and whatever your circumstances, take some time for yourself. Feel how you want. Bad news can knock the wind out of you —​​it’s​okay to feel disbelief, confusion, fear, shock. Be sad if you need. Like really, insanely sad.

When it comes to​h​elping​your friend, try to be available as they process emotions and think about how to break the news to other people. Hold your question tirade for the time being and try not to freak out in front of them — they’re dealing with a lot as it is.

And a reminder —​​don’t post anything to social media, at all, whatsoever. Like nothing.

• Wow. What should I say to my friend?

Try to be patient, sensitive, and genuine, and let your friend take the lead. If they need a hug, hug it out. If they need to get wasted and dance their ass off to forget everything for a night, then by all means, party (unless alcohol is now off the table, in which case, pound a pint of ice cream).

If possible, avoid these phrases:

Everything is going to be fine. While inspirational for some, this glosses over the reality and can even come across as a bit unsympathetic. Instead, try to acknowledge the situation and exist in it together. “This sucks so much. I’m here for you” is better.

I know so and so who had what you have and she’s fine. This is another go­-to phrase, but comparisons may not be helpful right now. Remember everyone has a different experience of cancer.

We have to tell people. Nah. This is your friend’s call. You’re not in charge of when or how they tell anyone.

I can’t be with you because... Clear your schedule. Your friend is more important than your haircut or book club or Tinder date.

Remember, it’s not about you right now, so try not to lay all of your reactions on your friend –​ they’re dealing with enough. Your friend needs you to be awesome.

Tell me more: Things People Say Lots of people are going to say the most offensive and totally inappropriate things. Here’s a longer list of things to avoid, and some illustrated cards that say just the right thing, created by someone who gets it.

• I shouldn’t post anything on the internet, right?

Def not. If you’re used to coping online, either on a blog or through social media, you have to understand that this is different. Do not, under any circumstances, post health related info about your friend online without their express permission (like if they are sitting next to you, or if they’ve explicitly asked you to post on their behalf to update friends and family).

Don’t take any liberties here. You could betray your friend by accident and also get into a shitload of trouble yourself.

One caveat — if your friend wants to blog and be public about what they are going through, let them call the shots. Be supportive by sharing what they write and, if your friend asks, contributing to their blog.

• Should I tell other people?

This is complicated! The safe, initial default answer is no. You should definitely not talk to other people about your friend’s cancer. It’s not your story to tell. Respect your friend’s privacy, and keep quiet.

However, if your friend has given you explicit, written, scripted instructions on how to explain the situation to someone (because they don’t want to deal with it and have asked you to handle it, and you’ve probably refused a couple of times already but they’re still asking) then fine. But it’s hard to break the news.

But after a while, yes, you might want to talk about it for your own health. This is a LOT to deal with. Pick one or two trusted individuals like your mom/therapist/priest/best friend who doesn’t know the friend all that well and who won’t gossip. You’re going to need to vent.

• Wait, is my friend going to die?

It’s uncertain, but there’s a lot of room for hope. You should believe what makes you feel the best, on any given day. For some people, this means getting comfortable with the possibility of death, and for others it means being uncritically optimistic. The good news is that medical research is advancing super fast. Many of the drugs our friend took didn't exist a few years ago, and we have enormous faith in scientific progress.

Chances are, your friend will look exactly the same for a long time. Many people experiencing cancer continue to work, date, love, and party like they always did. Depending on treatments, your friend may lose weight, get some new scars, or go through a lot of changes. Tell your friend they are beautiful. If your friend is undergoing chemo or radiation therapy, they may lose their hair. It’s possible that your friend may feel embarrassed to be out in public after some of these changes — give some positive feedback if they feel unsure of themselves. Fundamentally, they are still the same person, they’re just dealing with some heavy shit. Don’t get too hung up on appearances!

On a practical note, wigs can be expensive. Your friend may not be able to afford a decent one. She can get a prescription from the doctor and many insurance companies will reimburse her. Call first to find out whether it needs to be synthetic, etc. There are also places to get free wigs.

We really can’t wait for the day when we tell our great grand­children that people used to get cancer before it was eradicated, the same way our parents and grandparents’ generations faced tuberculosis, polio and other old­timey illnesses.

Tell me more: Going wig shopping with Crystal was actually kind of fun. Did you know they make wigs just for bangs?

What about me?

Being a rock for your friend means having flexibility and patience, and this is just the beginning. You may be asked to keep it light and fun, or you might need to find lost words during a grave appointment. Your friend might randomly want to talk about death. This experience has the potential to really take a toll on your insides.

Please take care of yourself! Things are nuts. Make sure you’re okay so that you can help other people in the best way possible. Everything will be easier if you feel physically well yourself. And remember there’s nothing wrong with having days where you don’t want to interact with people — it’s okay to stay home and binge watch Netflix, occasionally.

• What should I do right now?

Your friend may want you to help break the news to other friends or be with her when they tell her family. Go. Do whatever is needed in the next few days. These scary moments will be followed by more scary moments — like sorting out insurance coverage, researching treatment options and physicians, having surgeries, chemo, radiation, etc. —​​but your friend’s support network hasn’t been built yet. If you know now, you’re going to be a part of this moving forward.

You’ll start to adapt. Things will be weird for a while. Plan to be flexible, generous, patient, and trustworthy. You’ll be learning bit by bit what this all means. Scream, cry, accept it and keep moving forward.

You’ll toughen up. Friends of people experiencing cancer, chronic conditions, or any serious illness play a huge role in the day­to­day lives of those undergoing treatments.

You’ll be affected in unexpected ways. Remember to take care of yourself. Dig​deep emotionally and practically to find the resources to be a good friend.

Tell me more: Sigmund Freud wrote a beautiful essay about the day he first truly considered what transience means in our chaotic, uncontrollable world. You can read the full essay ‘On Transience’​ here.​

• I’m not sure what to do at my job

A lot of people actually find comfort going to work and feeling productive. On the other hand, getting to work may be the last thing on your mind. When it comes to your job, think about these things:

  • Determine how much you want share with your coworkers. Do you want to be open or do you want this to be an illness­free zone?

  • Decide if you want to tell your boss. Every situation is different, but you may need to take time off or otherwise loop them in for certain reasons.

  • Don’t miss deadlines. If you’re a slacker and late anyway, meh, don’t worry. But if you’re a decent employee, it’s important to maintain your good standing. This will be hard.

  • Save any freak outs for after office hours. It’s hard not to combine our personal and professional lives, but it can be good to put emotions aside for a few hours and get some work done. Maybe scope out a nice, quiet stairwell or soundproof bathroom stall just in case you need to take a call or have a mini­meltdown.

  • If you plan to go with your friend to appointments, try to schedule blocks in your work calendar for doctor appointments so meetings aren't scheduled on those important days.

Tell me more: Crystal worked full­time at a very cool non­profit called Do Something in NYC. Here’s how everyone at the office didn’t make a big deal about it all, unless they were serenading her via viral video.

• I need to debrief ­ who should I talk to on an ongoing basis?

Slowly you’ll figure out how you want to talk about this, and with whom. A major crisis can leave you considering big questions like the meaning of life or asking, why is this happening to my friend? You’ll need to talk about the gritty details with someone you trust, and understanding your friend’s wishes for openness or privacy will help you to pick the right people. Here’s the list of people you may consider confiding in:

Your significant other

The obvious person to turn to is the person you're sleeping with. If you're lucky to be in love with someone who loves you back and you feel comfortable sharing your deepest feelings about life, death and everything else with this person, then by all means, go for it! But remember, if you rely too much on one person, you might end up putting a strain on your relationship in unexpected ways. Check in with them about their feelings: just because your friend is terminally ill doesn't mean your significant other didn't have a bad day at work. Having bigger problems unfortunately doesn't cancel out other people's smaller problems, so try your best to also be a good listener in return (even if it you couldn’t give a fuck about their problems.)

Your family

Every family is different, and loads of families are nuts. If your relatives are totally dysfunctional, skip ahead! But let's say your family is pretty chill. Whether it's regular phone calls, a home­cooked meal or an escape from everything you're dealing with, a family who’s there for you is a real blessing. It also opens up conversations about early detection and screening for your loved ones.

Your parents might also worry...a lot. If one of your friends is sick, it will remind them of your own vulnerability. Parents fear the loss of a child way more than you realize. Also be prepared for a wave of “When my friend Mary had breast cancer” and “You know who else died of melanoma?” which may or may not be helpful.

Your other friends

You’ll be able to tell right away who ‘gets it’. You’ll sense the awkward silence from friends who just don’t know what to say, and you’ll feel oceans of gratitude to the friends who know exactly how you’re feeling. It might not come from your closest friends, but it will help. Friends are just the best. It’s surprising how topics like death and illness are still taboo, even though most of us will get sick at some point or another, and we’re all most definitely going to die eventually. But we tend to keep sick and dying people at bay, in hospitals or hospice, out of sight and out of mind. It will be a huge relief to open up and talk frankly about heavy things that affect us all.

Mutual friends will understand in a special way because they’re going through a lot of the same stuff too. In fact, this situation will bring you unexpected relationships –​​be open to new people who are coping with the same reality. Keep hanging with your random friends who don't know about it, too. They're the ones who can really give you a break from the deep feelings, and you can talk about all the other things going on. You can just hang out like you don't have a care in the world, if just for a little while.

Your therapist

If you can afford a therapist, get one. Talking with a pro​fessional can help you think about things from a new perspective in a non­judgemental atmosphere. You can​be truthful and without a filter. And therapists exist in a little bubble –​​they’re not going to pop up randomly at the grocery store and ask you about your sick friend.

Finding a therapist has never been easier – hop on Zocdoc to see who takes your insurance or to read reviews. You can also ask your friends if they know anyone (because really, it’s okay). S​ome hospitals have therapists on staff specifically to meet with cancer patients and their caregivers and will book complimentary sessions.​O​nline therapists are an option if you live in a remote area but have access to video chat. If you don’t have mental health benefits it can be extremely expensive, b​ut there are therapists that offer sliding scales based on income. We think it’s important for many people to seek out professional help.

Your priest, rabbi, imam or spiritual guru of choice

If you’re looking for insight, wisdom, and/or spiritual guidance, consider talking to a leader in your faith community. Someone who shares your beliefs can help you process your thoughts and feelings through the lens of your faith while also helping you navigate the unknowns. This may be a time for you to explore new belief systems, strengthen old ones, or just pick up the dao and breathe.

Furry friends

Now could be the time for a new puppy. Or kitten. Or iguana. Pets don't talk back, they're cute and nice and great company for when you don't want to deal with other humans (heyyy, introverts). If you're feeling down, your pet doesn’t care.

Dogs are great in the unconditional love department, and having to take care of one will help you maintain a consistent routine. Taking the dog for a walk forces you to go outside a few times a day and take it all in. It’s also a good way to get easy, regular exercise, because no matter what happens in the world and how overwhelmed you’re feeling, your dog will still need to go out.

But pets are also a lot of res​ponsibility, so think real hard about rescuing one on a whim. Also, pets die too, so maybe steer clear of the goldfish if you're worried about a double dose of grief.

How do we keep life semi­normal?

Everyone will process the news differently, requiring specific levels of attention, support, patience, and public displays. In our experience, our friend never wanted cancer to define her or her friendships. But she also didn’t keep it a secret, and would casually mention her brain tumors if she thought it could get her whole office free ice cream. In some ways we had it easy, because we always knew what our friend wanted.

Remember, your friend is the same person as always, they just have some serious shit to deal with. But circumstances have changed, and keeping life semi­normal is often the only arena where your friend may feel in control. Laughing can help to distract your friend and for her to have some fun and feel normal.

Our best advice is to talk about cancer when your friend wants to, and not to bring it up during joyful moments of escape. In time, you’ll learn how your friend needs you to react and when it’s appropriate for you to take the lead.

• How can I make myself most useful?

Try to make your friend’s life easier in small ways, so they can focus on getting better. In general, making positive contributions – either running small errands, sending a meal, or going out dancing because your friend wants to party – will make you feel useful and your friend feel supported. If you’re overwhelmed by the big picture, it can be soothing to focus on the minutiae.

Does your friend need a hand with laundry? Do they need a buddy to go to an appointment, or to call their HR person because they’ll be out for a few days? It’s really simple to offer this kind of help. It’s the simplest part of the whole thing. They might not be accustomed to asking for help if they are very independent, and they might not accept it at first, but you can always offer.

One word of caution – don’t go overboard. Part of keeping things normal is not smothering your friend with help and support they don’t actually need. Your friend should keep feeling as independent as possible. Calling extra attention to their illness is a big no­no. Remember, if you over­help, you’re not being useful anymore.

On that same note, if you’re overburdened in your own life with work, school, your own relationship issues, or anything else, you might not have the time to help. Sometimes we can’t drop everything, and that’s alright too. Make sure your friend knows you care, and that you’ll be there whenever you can. If you’re really that busy, she’ll understand. You might also realize that your other issues are less important, and maybe spending more time with your friend can become a priority over the engagements you can get out of.

Remember to not burden your friend with your own problems. We all have issues, and even though your friendship may have been based on her patience and interest in listening to you
sort all this out by analyzing the shit out of every nuance of your every relationship, your friend may no longer be interested in spending her time this way. When you’re complaining about your boss, or wondering if you should break up with someone, she might not be able to stop herself from thinking about how her next round of chemo. Be sensitive and careful about her mood. Remember, it’s not about you.

• Hold up, can we still have fun?

Oh yeah! Everything is nuts. Sometimes you have to say FUCK EVERYTHING. Have fun! Enjoy spending time with your friend talking about non­cancer related things, remember that the world is filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly and you can gossip about all three and more.

Your friend won't want to feel like an invalid, but she might not want to feel pressured into having ragers all the time. There are lots of ways to unwind — get creative!

Life­threatening illnesses are serious business, but if you can’t remember the last time you laughed at a joke, then you need a break. Take time to have fun with other friends. Watch some kitten or baby goat videos on YouTube. Relax and do some things that make you smile. You need to keep living your life.

• Um, what about dating?

So your friend might be in a relationship, or be happily single, or, more likely, in one of those ‘it’s complicated’ situations. Being a good boyfriend or girlfriend to someone with cancer is hard, especially if you just started dating. We’re writing this from the perspective of the friends —​we saw boyfriends come and go.

Advice to the boyfriend/girlfriend: If you think you can’t handle it, break it off immediately. Don’t beat around the bush, and don’t make excuses. It’s okay to say: “Cancer is really scary and I can’t deal with this right now.” Yes, that’s a selfish thing to say, and yes, that might make you an asshole, but at least it’s honest.

If you’re not scared away, be there 100% and make sure you also have a good, solid support network that you can rely on if the going gets tough. And be prepared to be the best romantic, spiritual and life partner ever. Like, be down to change bloody bandages, watch absolutely everything they want to watch (even the dumbest reality shows), spend long hours in hospitals, deal with their family, be nice to all their friends (even their exes), and much more. Not an easy feat. But love trumps all, right?

For everything in between, there’s no rulebook. Your friend might want a friend with benefits, without the time or the emotional availability to maintain a steady relationship. That’s what Tinder’s for! Hey, your friend has cancer! They can have one night stands if they feel like it. Don’t judge, just help swipe right when their thumb gets tired.

Tell me more: Holy Shit, My Girlfriend Has Cancer

• Shouldn’t my friend just move home?

Family seems like the first place to turn for support, but your friend might not want to move back home. It’s one of the odd things about dealing with major illnesses in your 20s. Giving up a new city with a cool job and fun friends (to go back to the house you lived in as a teenager) might not be all that appealing. Your family might live in a different city, state or even country, so uprooting your life at this point might not be the smartest thing to do. Parents, aunts, uncles and siblings are also juggling careers, lives, and maybe taking care of other children or older relatives. Every family is different.

As more and more millennials delay (or don’t believe in) marriage, we turn to our peers for support that may have previously been offered by a partner. Regardless of their family or relationship, your friend still needs you.

Tell me more: Ice Cream, the Afterlife & Nice Things
Here’s what Crystal thought about ice cream and the afterlife, and how nuns, rabbis, monks and priests all said nice things for her.

Read on: Cancer WTF


We’re not doctors, psychologists, or counselors. We’re not life-coaches, or your parents, or experts on cancer. We’re not here to tell you what to do, we’re just sharing what we went through, and what we think was helpful for Crystal and for us while dealing with cancer. Our hope is that what you read here helps you in some way, but remember to think for yourself and use your own judgment! And always, if you’re experiencing a medical emergency, don’t google it or rely on what we've said here, call 911.