“I just got a call that one of my favorite patients has cancer,” said my dental hygienist as she chipped and buffed and rinsed my plaque away. “I don’t know what to do, or even what to say.”

Hmmmmm, me thought to meself. There’s a lot you can do, and say, and not say.

I’ve been lucky enough that my friends, my family and my extended social network (not Facebook friends, “real friends” in “real life” – the kind of friends the media talks about these days) have taught me what you can do for someone who’s wandering aimlessly in Candyland.

So, for your friends or family who might need a little help, here are my top 10 things that have made this maddening trip a bearable journey.

Meal Train: This is a lifesaver (well, that remains to be seen – bahahaha!). People sign up on an online calendar (I understand there’s an app for it too) to bring a meal to your friend’s home at their preferred time of day and tailored to their dietary restrictions and/or requests. I’ll tell you, it just simplifies EVERYTHING if you know you have one good meal a day even when you can’t make it to the store or you don’t have the wherewithal to cook.

Be their guest: Take a week or two and stay with or near your friend or loved one. Caveat: This is obviously not for everyone and you have to make sure you won’t actually be a drain on your friend and they want you to come. My cousin Adabel and my friends Mia and Susan stayed with us from one to three weeks at a time, ensuring we had 24/7 help, walking the dogs, cleaning the kitchen, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, driving Rose to school, watching movies, just being a thorough but unobtrusive support. I don’t know how we would’ve made it through that first round of chemo and radiation without their help.

Family matters: Family members are the silent sufferers when someone falls gravely ill. So when Jack’s buddies ask how they can help, I’m like, “Take him out!” or “Watch the game with him!” or “Go fishing with him!” And while I haven’t said anything to Rose’s friends, they have been present for her, from school lunch dates to weekend hangouts to laughter-filled Skype sessions. Loved ones really are the invisible martyrs in an ordeal like this.

Take it to the streets: I used to look down my big long snooty nose at walks, rides, runs – any kind of fundraiser for any kind of cause. What was I thinking? God, what hubris. When Team Deirdre showed up at the brain cancer walk a few Saturdays ago, I was so touched by them … and all the other supporters that day bearing t-shirts, carrying signs and wearing sparkles for their friends with brain cancer. That was a swift lesson in humility (helped by the fact that I increasingly look like my totem featherless chicken), but more importantly, others walked with me in my world, making me feel … less alone.

Don a driver’s cap: You know what? When you’re super-duper not feeling well, it’s tough to get in the car and run to the store or take your daughter to get her driver’s permit or schlep your mom to the dentist. If you’re willing to run the occasional errand for or with your person, let them know so they can put you on the chauffeur call list. And don’t forget to wear a cap and carry a bottle of Grey Poupon.

Don’t ask, “What can  I do for you?”: Just … Do for them. Asking what you can do for someone puts the burden on said someone to come up with something, and the truth is, he might be too embarrassed to ask, “Can you bathe my dog?” or “Can you iron my one good shirt?” Whatever you’re good at, do that for your friend or loved one – I don’t care if it’s making a meringue or changing the oil in a car – do what you can do and what you like to do. It feels better at the receiving end. Here are some clever things our friends have done if you want to steal their creativity: Sew a sexy robe (thank you Catherine!), cuz when you’re sick, sexy washes off you faster than driving a gray minivan; build a front door altar (Rachel, hello); bring harvests from your garden (Amelia, Daniel, Abby); leave a daily surprise on the front porch from funny cards to home-baked scones (Leslie, wow); make a prayer blanket at your church (I’m not religulous, but when Topher’s parents made one in Albuquerque, I was so touched, and you know what they say about the power of prayer); send a juicer (they can be pricey, but used ones are dirt cheap) or sign up for an organic veggie delivery (Kat, Michael, Shafeen, Carrie, Neal and Mary – did I miss anyone?). Ok, there are a million other great things people have been so generous about, but you get the idea. It’s really all about just showing your support in your own personal way.

Silence is the silent killer: It’s the WORST when someone quits contacting you. And it’s the coolest when someone you barely know sends you a card out of the blue (I got a card from Kuwait the other day from a photojournalist I used to work with but really didn’t know – thanks Anthony, that was so surprising and fun, and what the hell are you doing in Kuwait?). Anyway, email, text, call, Facebook, Tweet, send smoke signals to your person. Just let them know they’re in your thoughts. And big note:  DON’T BE HURT IF YOU DON’T GET A RESPONSE. It might take them a long time to get back to you. But know they immensely appreciate your shouts out.

Toucha-toucha-toucha-touch them: OK. This is another one of those things that everyone may not want, or they may not want from YOU. But I can tell you that I have received coconut head massages from girlfriends, back and foot rubs from Jack, and full-body reflexology massages from professionals – and the only problem with any of them is that they didn’t last forever. When you’re physically compromised, a little physical bliss ain’t a bad thing.

Amuse them: Send a list of good movies, send funny cards, send funny books, send funny links. In my case, laughter may not be the best medicine, but it’s a damn good supplement. And please, don’t tell them “uplifting stories” about people who were given a month to live and lived a glorious three more years. That’s just fucking depressing.

Discuss, don’t advise: I’m guessing they don’t want to hear your Google advice on cures about their illness. It can be interesting information, and sometimes that information can even be helpful, but just avoid the whole, “You’ve GOT to do this or that, I saw on a YouTube video that it can totally cure your thing.” I’m sure your friend is already overwhelmed with pills and directions from their medical team (Eastern and Western). The information you have might be helpful – at least helpful for them to discuss with their doctors. But honestly, don’t insist they get a coffee enema because it kills cancer – especially while you’re at Starbucks.

Pictured above: One of the ‘gifts’ I receive from Paula, texts of random dead portraits. They make my day!

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