“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 most 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.
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Don’t feel bad venting about the every day 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 the 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 snacks. You can purchase much-needed items like:
You can also 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.
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Love, hugs, and wishing there were answers.HERE.