When Someone Tells You They Have Cancer
“I have cancer” she said, as I watched her cut and pat and butter the dough she was making into rolls.
“I’m sorry, so sorry to hear that you are going through this. What can I do to help you?”
“Nothing,” she said, “I don’t know what I’ll need.”
“I love you and will be here for you, whatever happens.”
“Thanks but I don’t know what the future will bring and I don’t know why this is happening to me. I don’t know why God is punishing me…I’ve lived a good life. I’m a good person.”
Now, facing cancer myself, I remember this scene in my grandmother’s kitchen. I remember I was horrified that my Grandmother believed in a God, who would punish her with cancer. I felt sorry she carried that strange belief, adding to her agony and worry over the disease. And I don’t remember what I said to her to comfort her.
I hope I told her that I loved her, that she was important to me and that I would be there for her. I hope I hugged her. I hope she knew how much I loved her.
Now, I know how it is...to tell someone, “I have cancer.” And I have learned hard lessons about how difficult it is, for people who love me, to hear those words. I have empathy with their sense of shock and worry and grief. It isn’t easy to know what to say or do because everyone reacts differently and everyone copes differently.
Because of this universal discomfort with talking about cancer and because I have cancer, I feel the need to offer suggestions from my own experiences.
So, in the hope of shedding light and offering support to those with cancer and to those who love them, here are my responses to the dilemma of what to say or do when someone you care for has cancer.
First, if you don’t know what to say or do, don’t be hard on yourself…it’s a common reaction and a human one. Acknowledging that the news is difficult for you to hear is better than saying nothing at all. Saying you don’t know what to do to help is OK too. The person with cancer doesn’t always know what they need either.
If you can say, “I’m sorry” or “I care about you” or “I’ll help when you need a drive or a meal or a listening ear,” those comments are supportive.
Don’t worry so much about saying the wrong thing. Take your cues from the person with cancer. They may need to talk, or to be quiet within themselves; they are processing all of this new information, just like you are.
Avoid telling them stories about everyone you know who had cancer and died; do I need to explain why?
Share positive stories. Talk about normal everyday life; cancer doesn’t need to be the topic of every conversation.
Respect their need to not talk some times. Talking about it out loud makes it very real; makes it frightening. They'll let you know when they need to discuss what is happening. Be open to possibilities.
If you want to bring a gift, make sure it is something they want or can use. Do they have allergies? Are they having problems with nausea? Do their cats eat flowers? Do they like music? Do they love chocolate? Are they well enough to make their own meals? Is there something they need but can’t get out to purchase? Is there something totally impractical they would love to have? Would they like to share a bottle of wine, and whine? And, you don’t have to bring gifts. Often just being with them is all they need. Yes, just you, really...you are gift enough.
Avoid saying things like: “Well, you have large breasts anyway, so a chunk missing doesn’t matter.” It matters, it matters a hell of a lot. When a surgeon takes ice-cream scoop size portions of tissue from your body, it matters. Think about it. It isn't about breast size. This presents a whole new set of challenges for the person with cancer. Don't make them feel like they're wallowing in vanity when they are mourning the loss of parts of themselves.
Give hugs, but gently. Surgery takes time to heal and incisions are often sore for a long period. For the person with cancer, touch helps. They are feeling isolated enough already and need all the comforting they can get.
Listen to them. Let them talk about what the cancer is like for them. If they cry, that’s OK. You can cry too if you want. The situation sucks and crying is an appropriate reaction. Crying relieves stress.
Remember to laugh with them too.
Don’t give unsolicited advice about how many pain pills they are taking. It’s their pain, not yours. The doctor knows what is happening and is supervising.
If the situation is effing awful, acknowledge that. You saying, “Wow, that’s horrible!” may be a relief. You can’t say anything that the person with cancer hasn’t already thought themselves. Sometimes, it’s a relief to have the situation recognized and named.
Remind them to rest. This situation is new to them and they may not realize how much the treatments and the stress are wearing on them. They are struggling to find their way through this journey.
Send email messages or leave phone messages to let them know you are thinking of them. They may not have the energy for visits or for long phone conversations. Let them tell you what works best. If you do visit, call first to see if they're feeling well enough for a visit.
Listen and pay attention to them. Be patient.
Don’t say, “Cheer up, don’t think about it.” They can’t stop thinking about it. Let the person with cancer guide you in what is helpful to them. Each person responds to their diagnosis differently.
There is a fine line between giving people space and privacy and protecting yourself from becoming emotionally involved. Some cannot and some don’t offer support; recognize what you can and cannot do. Be gentle with yourself. It doesn’t help the person with cancer if you force yourself to be there for them. They’ll know the difference. Again, be gentle with yourself in this situation. We are all different.
Avoid saying: “I’ve read that women who are overweight are predisposed to breast cancer.” Where do I begin? This isn’t helpful; there are other factors involved like genetics and environment. This blames the person for their disease and sounds like, “Well, you’re fat, so you deserve this.” It is a nasty comment and you're an asshole, if you say such things.
Last, if the person with cancer is used to being independent, it may be excruciating for them to have to ask for help. Keep offering and reassure them that you don’t mind helping, as long as you don’t. If you do mind, it's OK; be truthful. People who are dealing with serious illness appreciate the truth.
That’s all for now; if I think of anything else, I’ll write more another day. I hope this helps you to understand and to be gentle with the person who has cancer, as well as to be gentle with your own reactions.
Oh! And remember, breast cancer treatments have come a long way since my grandmother had cancer. The sensitivity of the medical system has improved. The modern equipment and the technology are able to diagnose and to treat cancer more effectively. It is not the death sentence it once was, in my grandmother's time.
There is hope and there is life. Every day, there is hope and there is life.
I choose life and I choose to share my own journey.
Yes, I have cancer but cancer doesn't have me.
Photo and words are © copyright Carol Steel.