Caregiving Friends May Need a Break

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

 I received a call last week that went something like this: “My friend has cancer and she wants me to visit on a regular basis. When I do visit, all she does is complain about how awful her life is. I dread these visits and go only because I feel guilty if I don’t. I know that her other friends have dropped away for the same reason.”

I understood what she meant. There are people with terrible cancers who manage to lift my spirits when I visit them. Other people with cancer exhaust me within minutes because they exude constant negative energy. The issue is rarely the cancer itself – it’s mostly a function of personality and how they cope with life in general.

So, what do I recommend for caretakers who cringe when they think about visiting a friend with cancer?  First, every person with cancer has down days and sometimes the situation is painfully sad, so do cut them a little slack. Friends can provide wonderful support by simply listening and being present. But cancer doesn’t give people a free ride to be perpetually unpleasant either. You are not their punching bag nor should you have to listen to the same complaints every single visit. It’s fine to be honest and say something like, “I really care about you, but it’s becoming difficult for me to visit you because you constantly complain. Can we make a special effort to talk about something else on a regular basis?”

Another approach is to say, “You seem really depressed. Are you connected with a therapist, or have you talked with your physician about this?” (Most of the time, they’ve already been encouraged to seek help for their depression). It’s reasonable to say, “I think it’s important that you get help. I really care about you and I can assist you in identifying therapists or providing resources. If you don’t get that help, though, I may have to stop visiting you because it’s becoming too difficult for me.”

Although depression is common after a cancer diagnosis, it’s not normal. Perhaps your nudge will cause your friend to seek treatment. By doing so, you may truly help them. But if your friend continues to complain and refuses to address the depression, discontinuing your visits either temporarily or permanently is reasonable. If your friend makes you cringe, it’s not healthy for either of you.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here to see all of Bob’s Columns


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