WHEN SOMEONE YOU KNOW AND LOVE HAS CANCER
"When life gives you lemons, I won't tell you a story about my friend's cousin who died of lemons"
Most people have a difficult time knowing what to say and/or do. Unless you've been there yourself, you can't possibly understand how it feels. We have been through it and wanted to provide some tips.
***Think before you speak***
We put this one first because it’s a big one. Many people say inappropriate things without realizing it and although we all know it's not intentional, it can be hurtful. Your words are powerful. People tend to share stories of others that they know who’ve had cancer. Try to avoid those urges, especially the stories of those who have not survived. Believe it or not, the last thing a cancer patient wants to hear is a story about how someone died from it. The reality of the mortality rate of cancer is a well known statistic and is not lost on someone with cancer. Try to be positive without being patronizing. While it’s good to be encouraging, it’s also important not to show false optimism. You don’t want to discount their very real fears, concerns, or sad feelings. Avoid statements like, "stay positive", "don't worry, you'll be fine", "to put things in perspective", and cliches like, "hero", “warrior”, and "battle". Instead, try saying things like, "I love you and we'll get through this together", "I'm here for you through the good and bad", or when you’re at a complete loss, give them a big hug and say "I don't know what to say". Try not to be overly mournful. A quick "I'm sorry that you're going through this", without that pitied look on your face, is more than enough. Try to put yourself in their shoes, which leads to our next tip.
***Follow their lead***
Take your cues from them. Some people are very private while others will openly talk about it. Respect their need to share or their need for privacy. Let them set the tone about what they want to talk about. Oftentimes, they don't want to talk about cancer. They probably want to feel as normal as possible so tell them a funny story. Better yet, just act normal around them. They don’t want to be treated differently, or to feel pitied by you. Allow them to talk about their illness if/when they want to. Let them choose, which leads to our next tip.
***Respect their decisions***
It's their life and how they treat their illness is entirely up to them, even if you disagree. Unless they ask for your advice, don't suggest alternative forms of treatment, a healthier lifestyle, or try to tell them what to think, feel, or how to act. Refrain from comments and comparisons of other people with cancer. Don’t talk about statistics, and research you’ve discovered online. Instead say, "I care about you and want to help", which leads to our next tip.
***Actions speak louder than words***
Show them you care. Show them, don't just tell them. Refrain from saying things like, "call me if you need anything", because most people won't take you up on it. The last thing a cancer patient wants to show is weakness, vulnerability, or an inability to take care of themselves. Instead, send or prepare a meal, arrange a schedule of meal delivery, help with childcare, offer a ride to treatment and sit with them during, help run errands, coordinate visits with friends and/or family. Be specific by asking, "what day can I bring you dinner, etc." Only offer to help if you intend to follow through with it and don't expect something in return, which leads to our next tip.
***Keep it about them***
Don’t take it personally. Focus on how you can support them. Cancer is scary for everyone but can be extremely lonely and isolating for the patient. The worst thing you can do is avoid them so just stay connected. Try not to complain and talk about your problems and how you’re feeling. It isn't about you. Your feelings do matter but however bad you're feeling, they're feeling worse. You need to be their emotional support, not the other way around. Don't put them in a position of having to comfort you when they already have enough to deal with, which leads to our next tip.
***Cancer is a big deal***
Avoid statements like, “breast cancer isn’t really a big deal anymore”, “there are so many different treatments now”, “cancer drugs have come a long way”, “at least you have the good cancer”. These statements undermine their feelings and downplay what they’re going through. Allow them to feel what their feeling, and talk about their fears and concerns, if any. Just knowing that you’re there to listen is enough, which leads to our next tip.
Listen, really listen, without feeling you have to respond. Sometimes a caring ear is all they need. Let them talk without interruption. You don’t have to have the answers. Make an effort to reach out and be there for them. Sometimes they may not want to talk at all. It’s ok to just sit in silence.
Don’t forget about those people who are responsible for the care of the person with cancer. Oftentimes, they will need help and support. Take the time to reach out to them to see how they’re doing. The role of caregiver can be stressful and isolating so don’t forget to show them you care as well.
Continue to treat them as normally as possible. Include them in work projects, plans, and social events. Let them decide if the commitment is too much to manage. Don’t assume they can no longer perform their job duties. They have cancer but are still a valuable member of your team. Keep them apprised with what’s happening at work. If they’ve been out of the office awhile, welcome them back with a little something on their desk to show how you’ve missed them.