I’m fighting cancer. I’ll be fine; I just have to go through hell to get there. I’ve kept this information quiet until now, but as my hair fell out the other day, the cat’s out of the bag anyway. And the executive coach in me has realized that there is an important lesson here that trumps my anonymity. My personal experience has revealed to me that very few people know how to behave around someone who has cancer. So, while I usually write here about law firm strategies, today I want to focus on an important life skill that might help a lot more people.
Unfortunately, we’ll all know someone with cancer at some point in our lifetime. I believe that most people are wonderful, and have a genuine desire to help and support others. Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, when it comes to dealing with people with cancer our actions often achieve the opposite result. Frankly, this is a mine field. It’s all too easy to wind up saying something that’s actually inappropriate, hurtful or terrifying without meaning to.
That’s OK, we just need to learn how to do it better. So, with that aim in mind, here is my take on what to do, and not do, around someone who is battling cancer. If you know someone with cancer, please keep this list handy. If you have cancer, feel free to modify this list according to your own needs and send it around to friends and family so they can avoid the pitfalls.
I’ll start with the “don’ts” because they can do the most immediate damage. Not all cancer patients may feel the same about these “don’ts”, but I’ve tried to make the list broad enough to help you avoid trouble. Here goes…
• To start with, please don’t avoid us just because you don’t know how to behave around us. It’s hard dealing with cancer; it’s worse to feel like a pariah. Reach out, regularly. We need you right now. And that’s not just when you hear about our diagnosis. We have a long and difficult road ahead of us and we’ll need you all along the way. Truly.
• It’s quite common for people to want to demonstrate affinity with us by telling us about someone close to them who died of cancer. (In my experience this happens about 30% of the time). Please understand that we are already acutely aware of our mortality. Reminders, in the circumstances, are cruel. Please, no cancer death stories. Period.
• While not everyone will mind this, some of us may not want to share with you what kind of cancer we have. Please don’t ask. In my case, when people find out what I have, I can almost see them calculating my likely lifespan, and that’s demeaning. If someone is OK with you knowing, they’ll tell you. (For inquiring minds, I’m fighting breast cancer).
• I recommend you not ask for details of our treatment if they aren’t offered. Again, some cancer patients may be fine with this but others may feel that’s private information. Having cancer doesn’t mean that our intimate details are now public domain. It’s safest to take your lead from the cancer patient. If they want to share, they will.
• Please, please don’t tell us to “be positive!” which is another common occurrence. First, with respect it’s pretty easy and empty to say that from where you stand. But it’s also damaging. It’s been proven that cancer patients do much better when we are honest about our feelings. If we are sad, we cry. If we are in pain, we cry out and seek help. If we are depressed, we share that with someone and ask for help. It’s far healthier for us to be honest with our emotions than to have to appear chipper all of the time. And telling us that we should be handling this differently/better than we are might just fill us with guilt, which is the last thing we need right now. It’s great when we can be positive. It’s critical that we are real and self-aware.
• If you haven’t had cancer before, please don’t suggest that you know how we feel because of a knee operation you had three years ago. Trust me when I tell you that if you haven’t gone through cancer surgery, chemo, radiation and hormone therapy, you have absolutely no idea what it’s like to go through cancer surgery, chemo, radiation and hormone therapy.
• In an effort to find conversation points with us, you might be tempted to go into detail about problems in your own life. While normally we’d be right there for you, understand that we’re going through hell, and a lot of very painful medical processes that are also making it difficult for us to concentrate, or stay awake. We also may be fighting for our life. We’re simply not in the physical shape or mind space to hear you talk for a long time about your work, relationship or money problems. And for our health, we’re far better off focusing on either neutral or happy topics right now.
• If you’ve had cancer (or any major illness) before, with respect we probably don’t want to hear a detailed summary of your medical history at the moment. It’s just that our life probably revolves around cancer and medical stuff these days. We just can’t stomach more of it. (The exception is if we ask you about it. I communicate with several cancer patients to get a general sense of what I’m facing and it’s been very helpful. The difference is, I’m asking questions).
• Again, with the greatest of respect, if you’ve had our type of cancer, please don’t tell us how painful it was for you, or all the things that went wrong with your treatment, or the terrible side effects the drugs gave you, or how you’ll never fully recover, etc. We REALLY don’t need to hear those things right now. (What you can tell us is that you went through it and survived and are doing great, and that we can, too!)
• When we lose our hair and you see us bald for the first time, please don’t laugh, grab the hat off our head or try to rub our head.
• While it’s tempting because we know you care about us, please don’t tell us what we should or shouldn’t do. For example, I LOVE my job and my clients. I’m working throughout my treatment because for large chunks of time I can do so with no problem, and because doing this keeps my spirits up. (Others might have decided to take time off, or work part time, or whatever works best for them). Please don’t tell us we should be off work completely and taking this time to heal, or that lots of people work through this and we should too. We need to get through this and heal in our own way. It’s safest to assume we’ve thought this through, discussed it with our medical advisors, and that we are doing what we feel is best for us.
• Most importantly, please don’t tell us how to deal with our cancer. This means please don’t tell us:
o To do or not do a particular course of treatment
o To go on a particular diet
o To see a particular physician or alternative care specialist
o To read a particular book
o To take a particular vitamin or supplement
Every cancer is different and requires very specific treatment. I have one of the best oncologist in the world for my type of cancer. My care team has the most up to date research on my type of cancer, and an exhaustive blueprint of my particular cancer. They understand how my body is reacting to various treatments. They have real time stats on recovery probabilities based on certain courses of treatment. I have access to dieticians and exercise therapists that specialize in cancer patients. And ultimately, my life is on the line. I know you want to help, but you can’t possibly be in a better position than my care team to tell me how to fight this successfully. And with this amazing team of experts and a veritable cancer-fighting machine at my disposal, you can appreciate why I might not find it as helpful to hear how your aunt Sally dealt with her cancer ten years ago, or about the article you read in a magazine last week.
If you’ve done any of these things, don’t fret. We don’t hate you. We still love you. We know your heart’s in the right place and you really want to help us. So now on to the fun stuff!
There is so much you can do and say to help someone with cancer. I’m recording a lot of these ideas from the experience of my husband and family as they’ve been wonderful with me. These are easy to do, and will be so appreciated! Note: some of these things are more appropriate by people who are well-known to the cancer patient. Just use your good sense as to which ones are appropriate for you.
• Do tell us you are sorry we have to go through this, but that you will pray for us/think of us and know that we are strong and will get through this.
• If you feel compelled to tell us stories about cancer, tell POSITIVE, encouraging stories.
• If you’re close to the cancer patient, reassure them that you love them and you will be there for them every step of the way. And then be there for them, every step of the way.
• If you can mean it and you’re close enough to the person with cancer for this to make sense, do remind them that it doesn’t matter what they need: a late-night phone call to cry it out; a walk with you to work out an anger ball of emotions; or some retail therapy or a movie to forget about everything for a while…you can be there for them.
• Do check in with us fairly frequently. Some people will make contact at diagnosis but rarely afterwards. We’re on an incredibly difficult journey and we will be greatly assisted by support all along the way. My family members each check in with me about every three or four days if not more. Friends could check in about once a week, or more. A quick call or email is fine.
• Does your neighbour have cancer? Look for small ways you an help out. Mow their lawn or rake their leaves after you’ve done yours. Bring in their garbage and recycling from the curb for them. Bring them some fresh cut flowers from your yard. Going shopping? Ask if they need anything. See if they need someone to walk their dog from time to time. Water their garden for them. Take your kids over and wash their car for them. Little acts of kindness can go a long, long way.
• Do keep track of when our treatments are taking place so it can to inform your communication. For example, I’m very sick for the first five or so days after chemo. Emails and texts are best during this time and are incredibly appreciated. I have about a 1.5-week period between treatments when I’m feeling my best and really like to get out and about with friends and family during this time. Find out what the schedule is for your friend/loved one and adjust your communication/interaction accordingly.
• Do be cognisant of our limitations. My friends and family remind me I can cancel a get together at the last minute if I need to. They ensure that whatever we’re doing is short enough so I can bug out if I need to. If we’re walking somewhere, they build in lots of breaks so I can rest when needed.
• Do send us funny pictures or clips, save up jokes to tell us, bring us stupid/goofy little gifts and otherwise, find ways to make us laugh if you can.
• Do offer to provide some “freezer food” for the family, especially if there are young children in the picture.
• Do allow us to explain the bad stuff and just listen. Sometimes it’s cathartic to get stuff off our chest. You don’t have to fix it, and you don’t have to immediately point out a positive that is happening at the same time (which might give the appearance of minimizing our pain). Being honest about what we’re going through doesn’t mean we’re wallowing in it. We’re processing and that in turn allows us to let it go. You can really help us in this process by being a good listener.
• I think most cancer patients are OK about being asked about their treatments if you know they’ve had one recently. “How did chemo go this week?” “How are you feeling now?” “How are side-effects?”. “Are you getting enough sleep?” “Are you up for some company?” “What can I do to help?”
• Give lots of hugs. I can’t get enough of them!
• Make eye contact with us, even when we show up bald and pale with dark bags under our eyes. We may be going through hell and our dignity may be tested, but you can help to make us feel like a valued human being simply by relating to us normally.
• Do offer to go with us to any of our many appointments. The drive and wait can be boring. It’s great to have company, to keep our mind off things and to know we don’t have to go through this alone. Maybe we can go for lunch or tea or a walk afterwards…
• Do have fun or interesting information ready to talk about. Is there juicy gossip you can tell me? Did one of your kids just get a role in the school play? Are you going on a trip soon (or did you just return?) Did you see any good movies lately? Have you started a new evening class? How about that hockey game the other night? Anything you say is going to be way more interesting than the hours of Netflix we’ve been watching in the wee hours when in too much pain to sleep. Fill us in! Remind us there’s life outside of what we’re going through at the moment!
• Do tell us about shows, books or magazines with interesting (non-health related) themes and even bring those for us to read/watch in case we’re interested.
• Do bring over a puzzle (great because we can work on whenever, by our self of with visitors), a board game, a pack of cards, or whatever we can do together while drinking tea and talking about whatever strikes our fancy. We may not have much energy but engaging with you will keep our mind stimulated and our heart open.
• Do encourage us to go for a walk with you. We need to get as much exercise as possible throughout treatments but it’s hard because we may feel weak and unwell for large chunks of time. But even an assisted walk down the block and back will really help us, and your company might be just the motivation we need to get off the couch.
• If your partner or someone else very close to you (sibling, best friend) is going through cancer, do take your lead from them. It can be difficult to closely support someone with a major illness when they might not approach it the same way you would. Feel free to let go of your choices, and your pre-conceived methods of dealing with this. Your role is not to tell them how you would do things. Your role is to support them in how they want to do things. And your presence and support in this way is worth more than you will ever know. You are critical to their well-being physically, mentally, emotionally. Don’t fight them: support them.
As a cancer patient I feel alone in this for much of the time. It’s my body, it’s my pain, it’s my fears I have to overcome. You can’t do this for me, but you can make it so much easier for me to get through it all! Some of these ideas are beautifully summarized in this great, short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STN9l0Oo8Tc
Unfortunately, cancer is so prevalent that we’re all going to need to learn how to do this well at some point. I hope this post helps you to better understand what you can do (and not do) to be as supportive as possible for those individuals. Feel free to pass it on to anyone you feel might benefit from it.
In my experience, most people have a heart of gold and truly want to do whatever they can to be helpful and supportive. Sometimes, we just need a little guidance to get there : )
With compassion and hope, Heather.