Words are difficult to find.
It is very difficult to know exactly what to say to someone who has cancer or a serious life threatening illness or disease that requires prolonged surgery or treatment. No matter how close you are – spouse, child, friend, work colleague – it still feels awkward. Most people feel that they always need to be saying something about the illness in an effort to encourage the person with the illness. But depending on what is said and how it is said, often it only makes matters worse. I have learned a few things from my experience that I would like to share with you. Things that helped me and things I keep in mind now when helping others who are going through their own challenges.
My initial reaction was to keep my diagnosis to myself. Why? Because it was difficult enough to wrap my head around what was happening to me without having to constantly and repeatedly explain it to anyone who asked. It seems like you answer the same question several times a day when all you want to do is think of something else – something totally unrelated. People would actually say to me “How did that happen?” “How did you find out?” In my case with lung cancer, I also immediately heard “How long did you smoke?” It was as if the reason for the cancer was my fault or related to something that I did to myself. I never smoked so it was a little hurtful that people automatically assumed that was the cause. A small part of me felt that they were looking for a reason to assure themselves that it would never happen to them because they could confirm that they did not engage in similar activities. I was never sick. Never had surgery other than having tonsils removed as a child.
How could this happen to me?
Cancer happens and it happens when you least expect it in ways that you least expect and to people you would least expect. Having to explain it or try to assure others that they will be safe should not be the job of someone who has cancer. When something awful happens to someone else, it is natural for you to internalize it and look at yourself and ask “How can I keep it from happening to me?” Suppose there is a horrible traffic accident. You would read about it or see it and perhaps say to yourself that would never happen to me. I never drive that fast, drink and drive, text and drive, whatever the reason. You breathe easier because you would never put yourself in that position. With cancer, when you ask someone the reason they got it – it can sound like is asking someone what did you do to put yourself in that position. The same when someone asks (and realize it may be the fortieth time someone with cancer has heard the question) how was it found – that’s the last thing you want to explain – again. Once a person has the diagnosis, the reason for the cancer does not matter. What matters is moving forward to get well. So the question to ask is what can I do to help support you as you move thorough this journey? The key is to let the person know that you will be there for anything, any time, whatever – to talk, to not talk, to hold a hand, to run errands, to do whatever is needed. Let them know that you are there to listen most of all.
It was important for someone with cancer or any serious illness to continue the relationships they had before their diagnosis. It is even more important that those relationships be supportive and nurturing and not become heavy and sad. I kept wanting to say “I’m not dead yet!” After the initial shock of the diagnosis, my biggest fear, next to possibly not surviving the cancer itself, was that people would see me differently and treat me differently. I did not want to be pitied or made a victim. I have always been a strong, driven and focused person – classic type A personality. But now I felt others would no longer let me be the person that I was – that they would no longer see me as that person. When I told those closest to me about my diagnosis, the first thing I asked them was that they not treat me any differently, that they let me bring up the cancer otherwise the discussion was off the table. I wanted my conversations to start the way they always did with my friends – whether it was “Hi! What’s up?” or “Hello, what do you feel like doing today?” or “Hey, feel like going to lunch today?” Call me with good news. Tell me about your vacation, let’s catch up on Downton Abbey or The Good Wife. Let’s watch a movie. Call me and ask my advice on things. Call and say “I am running to the store – can I pick up something for you” or “Can I stop by before I head home?”
While no one wants to be pitied or sit around crying, there are days when it is good to just purge those feelings so a day where you spend a little time crying it out is a good thing for letting out the frustration but then snap out of it if you can. If you cannot, you may need to talk to someone who can help. We should be able to do that and not feel as if we are letting everyone down. Celebrate a person’s recovery or success and let them move on putting it behind them if they choose. Now almost five years later, I still get calls from people in whose voices I can hear the immediate sympathy as they inquire right off the bat “Are you still cancer free?” or “How’s the cancer?” We all have our own ways of coping with difficult situations. A lot of us take up the mantle and become vocal in supporting the various organizations that do fundraising for cancer or supporting others actively and sharing our own experiences. Those who know us best, should honor the path that we chose to take in making the journey through the difficult period and let us show them the way to make the journey with us. That way, we all survive and enjoy the road ahead.