I feel like there’s been a ton of stories recently on what not to say with someone recently diagnosed with cancer. There was this one, more seriously dealing with stage 3 metastatic breast cancer, and funny lists with memes like this one. Honestly, I totally get where they’re coming from. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 24 years old. It can be hard to know what to say to someone close to you diagnosed with cancer.
When I was diagnosed, I learned that how I told people about my diagnosis would help them in supporting me, and feeling comfortable doing so. But they didn’t always know how to respond. Somehow saying, “It will all be okay” doesn’t seem enough for someone facing a life threatening illness. But there are all kinds of simple things to say that I really appreciated hearing. Here are a few.
What can I do to make your life easier?
In my first month after being diagnosed, I was at the hospital every. single. day. for follow up appointments. My life had just been turned upside down, and my emotions spanned from hulk-like rage to deep sadness in a matter of seconds. The best gift anyone could have given me? Their time. If you really want to help someone battling a life threatening illness, ask what you can do to relieve their stress. Prepare food (something easy and healthy that you can pop in the oven!), help clean or do a few things around the house, drive to the hospital (or to drop off or pickup a prescription), and make care packages (books! Magazines! Sudoku! Anything to pass the long hospital wait times!). I so appreciated the people who took time to help me out.
How are you handling everything?
This is much better then “Are you OK?” The answer is, no I’m not OK. Everyone will handle things in their own way, so this question opens up a genuine and honest conversation. When I was asked if I was OK, I felt the need to reassure everyone that yes, I was not drowning in an abyss of my own sorrow. This question allows us to tell you how we really feel.
I’m not sure what to say.
Being honest is totally OK. We actually appreciate it. Rather then filling the void with something you think you should say, say how you truly feel. In the end, what we really need is someone to listen.
You look ________________! I love your ____________!
Chances are our physical appearances have changed significantly since we last saw you, and it’s making us feel awkward. Whether it’s a loss of hair (facial hair or head!) from chemo, some scarring from surgery, bad radiation burns, or weight gain (or loss), we know that you noticed. I always appreciated a compliment on how “real” my wig looked, how my skin cleared up once I started treatments (no hormones, the only bonus of chemo!), or even just a compliment on my new nail polish color. Pick something positive to focus on. Of course, outward appearance isn’t everything, but everyone can use a pick-me-up when they’re going through treatments.
I know it isn’t the same, but my _________ had cancer so I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.
The key to the above statement is acknowledging that no one is the same. Everyone is different, with a different diagnosis. Comparing us is like comparing apples to oranges, day to night, Buffy to Faith. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to hear about or be connected to other cancer survivors! What this statement is really saying is this: I can’t begin to understand what you are going through, but I have been a support system for _________ so I can be there for you too.
Honourable mention: Humour can be a great way to deal with cancer, but it isn’t for everyone. My boyfriend, for one, dealt with my cancer through humour. Next thing I knew, he would have my wig on to make me laugh and boob jokes became increasingly popular in my household. Feel them out. If you’re the joking type, this could be the stress relief that the doctor ordered.
Cancer is life changing but one thing I wish I could have told my friends and family is how desperately I wanted to keep living a normal life. I found that some of my family and friends were shielding me from their own personal problems because they felt like they didn’t “measure up” to what I must be going through. Truth is, it made me feel… lonelier. Be supportive when needed, but be our friends above all! Normalcy is what got me through my treatments, and it is how I’ve been able to slowly transition back to “real life” again.
Samantha Price is a 24-year-old business graduate who works in visual merchandising. Outside of work, she spends time with her handsome boyfriend and two sweet kitties (Oatmeal & Pancakes).
[Image via iStock]