“Hi [insert name]. I wanted to let you know I have some bad news. I have cancer.” From this point on… it seems like everything changes with your relationship when your loved one has cancer. But it shouldn’t. What do I say? What do I do? How can I help?
You’re stuck between wanting to say the right thing… and not wanting to say the wrong thing. By offering to help, but not wanting to bother him/her and respect their privacy. For this article, I am going to interchange pronouns and cancer types. The basic premise can apply to almost anyone with any kind of cancer.
We’ve All Had an “Aunt Betty”
Human instinct is to go with the familiar. For example, everyone has an “Aunt Betty” who had breast cancer. Maybe Aunt Betty is fine. Maybe Aunt Betty died. Maybe Aunt Betty’s cancer was 20 years ago… or 20 days ago. But Aunt Betty is not your loved one. Well… you know what I mean.
It’s not a good idea to say “Aunt Betty had cancer and she died.” Or “Aunt Betty had cancer and she’s fine.”
It’s totally fine to bring up Aunt Betty. As in… “when Aunt Betty was diagnosed, I know how scared she was and how much I wanted to help her. How are you doing? What can I do for you? ”
What to Say. Or Not.
When going through cancer treatment, we are going to be completely needy, and also push you away and want privacy. We are going to be depressed and angry about the diagnosis, and possibly obsessive about doing research. All totally normal.
More than words, what we need is for you to listen. Listen to what we need. And this is going to change day by day and even hour by hour. There were times I needed to vent about cancer and how much I hated having it and how sick I was and the whole boo hoo. Just listen. Don’t be grossed out. We may talk about chemo farts and puking our guts out and colostomy bags. When I’m done, try and make me laugh. I’ll need it.
There were times when the “Big C” was verboten. I wanted to hear all about your kids and their poopy diapers and the gossip of the moms of the playground. I wanted to hear about your dates and how wonderful Mr. Right is or how horrible the date with Mr. Wrong went. I want to hear about Mr. Whiskers and how he cute he is when he sleeps or how Bandit chases the mailman. I want to hear about how your husband doesn’t pick up his socks and how annoying and intrusive his mother is.
Psst… want to learn some easy cancer prevention strategies? Click below…
Don’t feel bad venting about everyday stuff in your life. Don’t feel bad monopolizing the conversation. It’s keeping my mind off how much cancer hurts.
Don’t offer advice unless asked specifically. Cancer isn’t cancer. It’s not a one size fits all. Everyone’s diagnosis is different, everyone’s treatment is different. Don’t tell me what to eat or not eat. Don’t tell me to try your homemade remedy. I’m going to listen to my doctors who are a team of medical professionals working on my case, and do what is best for me.
Don’t tell me that I’ll be fine. I may not be. I may be facing mortality. I understand you mean well, but it belittles the treatment. Don’t tell me you know what I’m going through unless you’ve been through it too. Tell me you love me. Tell me you’re there for me. Tell me you’ll help take care of my family.
Do encourage me to get a second opinion if I’m not happy with my doctor. Do encourage me to go to the doctor in the first place when I find a weird lump or something isn’t quite right.
Everyone is different. Cancer will rock your loved one’s world. There is nothing you can do to fix it and to take cancer away. As much as you want that to happen. And there is nothing you can say that will make them feel better. But knowing you care and support them will.
Laughter Kills Cancer Cells
Your loved one has cancer and you can’t take it away from them. You can’t take away the pain, the anger, the fear. I sometimes think that the loved ones have a tougher time with cancer than the patient. The patient gets to fight every day and that is empowering. The supporter gets to watch their loved one go through something horrible.
Send her a card or an email. Make it cheery and funny. She needs to laugh. Laughter kills cancer cells.
I’m going to put on a strong front and say I don’t need help. Give me a multiple-choice test.
“What do you need?”
“Nothing, I’m good.”
~ ~ ~
“Do you want me to bring dinner over for your family or do you want me to do laundry for you one afternoon? Do you prefer Monday or Thursday evening?”
“Um… sure why don’t you bring dinner over on Monday night.”
“Lasagna or chicken?”
What You Can Do
Offer to drive him to appointments, take notes during an appointment, do something for the kids, do laundry, wash dishes, do research (ie – there are organizations that clean cancer patient’s homes for free), hire a caretaker for her, send a note or email, make a donation… the list is endless depending on your loved one’s age and life situation and responsibilities.
The thing is… most of the time, your loved one doesn’t even know what they want or need. His head is spinning from the cancer news and treatment. Check in with their family and see how you can help. Pay attention to queues when you speak with him. Follow his lead, and respect his wishes.
Remember the spouse and children. They need your support just as much as your friend. If not more. Give them some time off. Give them a treat. Let them talk or vent.
When someone is going through chemo, chances are their sense of smell is going to be altered. Don’t send flowers or if you do, check in with the spouse first to see if it’s ok. The smell of flowers may be repugnant to her. Same with candles. In your head, it’s healing and therapeutic. The smell of a candle might make her nauseous. Instead, how about a pretty plant or something for the front porch? One final thought while we’re smelling here… don’t wear perfume if you visit her.
His sense of taste will probably be altered. Food that he enjoys and loves may be repugnant to him. I had weird cravings going through chemo and there were times that the only thing I wanted to eat was Ore Ida crinkle fries. This will change throughout treatment, so again, best to check. But the family will still need to eat. Feed them.
If You Want to Purchase Something
Send a care package with healthy food and personal care items. You can purchase much-needed items like:
Check out the chemo care basket I created for the fundraiser at the hospital for some more creative and useful ideas.
Pay attention to queues when you speak with them. Follow their lead, and respect their wishes.
You can be patient. You can pray. You can just be. And that’s what your loved one needs the most.
Are You Inspired?
Be sure to download your FREE eBook 5 Cancer Prevention Strategies for Cancer Survivors!
Love, hugs, and wishing there were answers.HERE.
I am going through this right now with my husband, he has bladder cancer and starts his chemo next week for 4 weeks before his surgery to remove the bladder, it’s been very stressful for the both of us, especially when I am already on disability and now he is going to be off work, that is the biggest thing we are struggling with right now is how are we going to keep the bills payed, no one thinks about the daily life problems when it comes to cancer, you still have to pay your bills on top of all the cancer treatment costs, ok I am done I had to get this off my chest, and it’s good to talk about it, don’t keep everything bottled inside!
Hi Lyndac – Oh my goodness I am so sorry to hear about everything. The cost of cancer is unreal, I know. Blessings to you and your husband and thank you for being so kind to share. Hugs, Holly
This is a great article full of so much wonderful information. It can be hard to be a cancer patient and someone who is friends with a cancer patient. You have some great ideas.
Hi Cynthia – Thank you for your kind words, and I know you’ve been there too. Big hugs and blessings of continued good health to you. Hugs, Holy
What great advice! Loved this so much. During the first part about just needing someone to listen and not give advice and such, I kept thinking about Job and his friends coming to mourn with him. They were wonderful friends as long as they were silent but the moment they started opening their mouths and trying to come up with the why’s of his situation and advising him how to proceed, their presence became and annoyance and bitter.
Hi Narrow Minded – Oh my goodness did I need to hear that. I need to be a little better versed in the Bible and I know vaguely the story of Job, but after this I’m going back to read it again. #truth Thank you so much for stopping by to share and I hope to see you again soon. Hugs, Holly
My husband went through a very rare cancer episode. I say episode because one never knows with cancer if it will return or not. I made sure he was laughing as much as possible. I would make sure to say or do goofy things, but also make sure when he had appointments to always be there, and write things down since the drugs for pain made him loopy.
One of the big things I think is make sure you have someone if possible with you who isnt squeamish, who will listen when perhaps you cant or dont want to.
lyndac1968 dont be afraid, you will get through this! One place to call is the American Cancer society. They can find resources in your area who can help. Call as many as you need, dont be afraid to ask. If you have to go out of town for treatment, ask the hospital who to speak with. They really want to help.
Our journey isn’t over, but like the rest of life it is a journey.
Holly, I wish you well, and I hope you are feeling well. I hope today brought you a smile. This is wonderfully written!
Oh, hubbys food was Kentucky Fried Chicken gravy ….. every day he had to have it rain or shine and only from one of the places here since he said there was a taste difference.
Hi Ellen – Thank you so much for your kind words and for taking the time to share your experience. My Hubby came up with all kinds of crazy nicknames for my bald head but Coconut Head stuck, which became the first version of this blog. Blessings of good health to you and your husband and I hope to see you back here again soon. Hugs, Holly
This is such a great post with much needed advice. I know several people battling cancer and this really helps to know how to be there for them. Thank you so much for sharing.
Hi Messes and Memories – Thank you for your kind words and I hope to see you again. Hugs, Holly