I’m a proud card-carrying member of the cancer survivor generation and I’m in good company: The American Cancer Society reports that there are an estimated 14.5 million cancer survivors in the United States today, with that number expected to climb to nearly 19 million by 2024.
Surviving cancer means many things: being confronted with your mortality, for one. It also means hearing a diagnosis that can be shocking, frightening and have a deep emotional impact that goes beyond the patient.
“The word ‘cancer’ evokes strong emotions, not only for those who are diagnosed but also for family and friends,” says Amy Feld, a child psychologist and breast cancer survivor. Some people are better equipped to support sufferers, while others back away, she says.
A Common Dilemma
You are hardly alone if you become unsure and tongue-tied when confronted with someone with cancer.
I even had a friend who introduced me to someone as, ‘My friend who has cancer.’
— Cancer survivor
No matter if you know the person intimately or they’re a passing acquaintance, it can be challenging to know how to handle the situation. Even I, a breast cancer survivor, have to pause and consider what to do and what to say to another to convey understanding and support.
But I can tell you this: everyone faced with a cancer diagnosis — and 39.6 percent of Americans will be at some time in their lives — needs some reassurance that the other person understands on some level what they are facing.
I’ve gathered some helpful tips, between my personal experience, feedback from other cancer survivors, professional organizations and the professional and personal advice of Feld.
It’s important to know that everyone needs different things.
What to Do, What Not to Do
1. Sometimes, no words are necessary. And sometimes, there are no words. Instead, just being present is enough. One gesture I’ll never forget is what my former boss did for me the day I arrived home from the hospital. After driving many miles through a bad snowstorm, he sat silently by my bedside for four hours. No words were exchanged, or necessary. His quiet presence was comforting beyond measure.
2. Simple words — even admitting you don’t have any — can carry great strength. You can show interest and concern without saying a lot. “I’m not sure what to say,” “I want you to know I care,” “I’m here if you want to talk about it.” These simple phrases are better than ignoring the person outright.
3. Don’t label the person as “sick.” So many cancer patients are inundated with medical talk, procedures and tests that all they crave is normalcy as much as possible while outside the doctor’s office. One survivor told me: “Even after 10 years, I still see people who say, ‘And how do you feel?’ as if I’ve just recovered from the plague! We don’t want to be thought of as having permanent patient status…I even had a friend who introduced me to someone as, ‘My friend who has cancer.’ I’d had my surgery and was moving on.”
4. Remember to ask. Ask the person about her life, her family, her activities — anything that gives her joy. Invite her out to lunch, to a funny movie or a day of shopping; things that take her away from the medical and put her back into everyday life.
“Don’t assume she’s too sick to participate. Even if she isn’t up to going out or talking, she’ll appreciate that you haven’t forgotten her,” Feld says. Or reach out with cards or a simple message left on her voicemail: “Just calling to say I’m thinking of you.”
5. Save the stories for some other time (or not at all). Some people are tempted to share stories about family members or friends who have had cancer, perhaps in an attempt to feel some sort of solidarity. But everyone’s experience with cancer is different and these stories may not be helpful.
On the flip side, a story shared about someone you know who survived cancer can often be uplifting and give hope for the future.
6. Using humor can help. It can be an important way of coping and lightening the mood, says the American Cancer Society; it’s another approach to provide support and encouragement. But let the person with the cancer take the lead; you never want to joke about things like hair loss or losing weight unless you know that person can handle it and appreciate the humor.
7. Offer to help. But do so in a concrete way. Rather than asking, “Let me know if I can do anything,” make specific offers, like bringing dinner, cleaning the bathroom, offering rides to doctor’s appointments or treatment sessions, Feld suggests. Better yet, organize a team of caregivers to take turns with various tasks.
8. Be a good listener. “Listen more than you talk,” Feld advises. Sometimes the person with cancer just needs to express her thoughts, without getting advice in return. Knowing she is heard can be therapeutic and consoling.
9. It’s not over when treatment ends. Often, this can be the toughest part of the cancer journey. Patients dealing with cancer may have symptoms of post-traumatic stress even after treatment is complete, according to the National Cancer Institute. (I can personally attest to that.)
“Many people experience depression after treatment. The last thing they want to hear is, “You should be happy; no more chemo!” Feld says. Research on Danish breast cancer survivors found that 14 percent reported symptoms 15 months after treatment.
The bottom line: Feelings of helplessness and isolation are pervasive among those who have been diagnosed with cancer. They need support. That’s precisely why a touch or a hug, a smile or the right words can go such a long way toward healing and comfort.
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