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Friendship Fights Cancer!

A new study illuminates the power of friendship in cancer recovery.

Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Last night I learned a friend has cancer. Another friend was diagnosed last week, and a third, who is already a survivor, is having frightening pains. This is happening more and more in our lives. No matter the type of cancer or the degree of advancement, we have all witnessed how a diagnosis causes all aspects of a woman’s world to become upended, uncertain and terrifying. Physically and emotionally she enters new, uncharted territory. Scientists say that a cancer diagnosis causes a patient greater distress than any other.

As nurturing creatures, we want to jump in and do something, anything, to help our friend. A new study measuring social support for cancer patients shows that we should, by all means, follow our instincts because when it comes to a woman’s mental and physical state during treatment and recovery, friends can have a unique, substantial, and important impact. Indeed this research shows that a woman’s friends can have an even greater impact on a patient’s quality of life and physical and emotional functioning, than her family or her significant other.

Studying 211 female patients with gynecological cancers (cervix, ovarian, breast, endometrium) between the ages of 34 and 80, the researchers analyzed 18 specific areas of psychological and physical impact, finding support from friends most impactful in 15. This finding dovetails with others that show that cancer patients with strong social support suffer less pain and receive more effective results from their cancer medications than patients with less support.

The researchers concluded that healthcare providers should work directly with members of the support circle to build and strengthen the patient’s network. How wonderful to think of the medical community recognizing and embracing the important role of friends in beating cancer.

Over the last few months I have followed a friend’s husband’s CaringBridge posts after her periodic chemotherapy treatments. Each one has been a public thank-you to the friends who have provided care on treatment days—cold cap helpers, snack providers for the nurses and staff, lunch chefs, and various members of the cheer team. I have been awed and inspired by the organized effort by her friends, and so happy to see the positive progression of her battle. However, because not all of us would be fortunate to have such an army of involved friends, I was also glad to see that the researchers found that it was not necessarily the number of people who provided social support to the patient that made a difference; it was the availability and level of support. In other words, even one person has the power to make a substantial difference in the life of a friend facing cancer.

Sometimes, because we aren’t extremely close to someone who is battling cancer or we haven’t been in touch recently or we don’t want to impose, we don’t do anything. We imagine that others who are older friends or more intimate friends have it covered. This research shows that we should never let these hesitations stand in the way of the good we can do. Just adding our voice of encouragement and concern, or sending hugs and prayers, will help strengthen our friend’s resolve--and perhaps actual restoration--to full health. It has been proven that emotional support leads to improved physical health and a higher quality of life, so anything we can do to make her know that she is surrounded by love and caring matters.

Part Two of this article offers specific ideas, garnered from survivors, for how to support a friend going through cancer.

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