Kimberly Fink was 32 and working as a prop stylist in Philadelphia, when she was unexpectedly diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of uterine cancer. Over the course of the next year, she battled her way through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, eventually entering remission in 2012.
“One of the things I found, and it’s actually quite a common experience among cancer patients, is that all of these people reach out in the beginning, and then they don’t know what to say and they don’t know what to do, and they wind up doing nothing at all,” she says.
Born from her own experience, Kimberly came up with the idea for her company, Treatmint Box—a subscription service offering positive, indulgently practical gifts for cancer patients—while she was in treatment herself.
Available individually, or as 3-, 6- or 12-month subscriptions, the box is designed to arrive every month, offering a ray of sunshine and support, even as the rest of the world continues on. The 4-5 items—half-comfort and half-inspirational—are carefully vetted and selected by former patients, who know what’s most appreciated when you’re undergoing treatment. “If you haven’t undergone treatment, you might question why some of the stuff is in there,” Kimberly explains. “We recently included a tote bag. When you’re going to chemo, you’re there for a while and you’re always lugging around a ton of stuff to keep you busy. We didn’t intend to be super-practical; you’re never going to see a radiation burn cream in these boxes. We look for items people wouldn’t generally buy themselves.”
Kimberly tapped some of her former colleagues and contacts in the design industry and spent a year post-treatment raising funds and developing her business plan. She launched with subscription boxes for male and female patients. Kids’ boxes and caregivers’ boxes are on the horizon next.
More than 1.6 million people were diagnosed with cancer in 2015 alone, making Kimberly’s experience hardly unique. We asked her to help us get over the “what-do-I-say” hurdle and give us practical tips for being the ultimate support system to a friend who’s dealing with a frightening diagnosis.
Speak from the heart
We get so wrapped up in trying to say the right thing that we become paralyzed. If you don’t know what to say, it’s okay to admit it. Say, “I don’t know what to do, but I love you and I’m going to be there for you.” It doesn’t have to be profound. The most important thing is to listen and let the person who’s going through the hard time take the lead. Everyone deals with things differently.
Take the initiative
It’s so tempting to say, “Let me know how I can help,” but that’s just adding something else to your friend’s plate. Drop off a meal that can be frozen if they’ve already thought of dinner for the night. Call and say, “I’m going to the grocery store, what can I get you?” Or, “Can I come over on Monday and walk the dog?” Be specific. “Can I pick up the kids from school tomorrow?”
Put together an awesome care package
Think about things your friend can do bedside. I love the idea of an art set, or a coloring book—anything to pass the time. An iTunes gift card is great. One of the things that helped me the most were handwritten letters. They meant so much to me and I love to be able to look back at them now.
Don’t deny reality
Don’t say, “Everything’s going to be okay.” It may not be. People seem to immediately want to think of a friend, cousin or grandmother who also had cancer. A lot of times, they’ll even add, “Oh, she died of that.” That’s not helpful.
Leave the medical advice to the medical team
Every cancer is different—and within every cancer there are subtypes of cancer and those are all different. I had uterine cancer, which is pretty curable, but I had a subtype that only 10-percent of people have and it’s highly aggressive and often fatal. This is the most frustrating thing, and it’s all meant in love, but I remember someone sending me an email that said, “Hey! Have you heard about this herb? It’s only grown in this part of the Amazon, but it might cure your cancer.” It’s best to just leave the medical advice to the medical team.
Give your friend the chance not to be your hero
You hear a lot of, “You’re so strong.” I remember people telling me, “You’re my hero.” On the surface, it might seem good to say, but your friend may not feel like a hero—some days, she may not be strong, she might need to cry. If you’re constantly telling her how strong she is, you take away her permission to express how she’s really feeling.
Remind her of her old life
One of the myths people have is that you can no longer talk to your friend about the old stuff you used to talk about. It’s actually one of the most helpful things—it makes life feel normal again and it keeps your relationship going.
Push through the awkwardness
Reaching out once won’t feel awkward, but after awhile, it might start to. Just push through it. If you send a card at first, don’t stop there. Send a card the next month and the next—just to let your friend know you’re thinking about them. Put a reminder in your calendar. Even a text message can be really helpful. Don’t underestimate the value of your support.
Post-treatment can be the hardest part
I heard a great analogy once that said having cancer is like when your house is on fire—you just want to get out alive, and all you can think about is getting your family out safely. Then, after cancer, is like when you’re sitting on the curb looking at your burned-down house and saying, “what the hell just happened to my life?” It’s a really, really difficult experience in remission and a lot of people assume things just go back to normal, but it doesn’t work like that. You’ve had a life-changing experience and it affects the entire way you view the world. Be sensitive to that.