How can you best support someone who needs you when you’re scared, too?
I stared at the tiles on the ceiling of the room listening to the beeping sound of the machine, feeling the wet the globs of gel across my breast, while two technicians stared at the black and white curvy lines.
Prior to the ultrasound, in a room down the hall, I wore a thin gown as the nice lady squished my right boob during a diagnostic mammogram exam. Soon that same breast would be poked with a long biopsy needle.
Eventually, all the tests revealing the news: breast cancer. Getting cancer was not in the plans at 41 years old.
After I broke the news to people, responses and reactions varied. Some sent cards, others brought meals. A few people provided a flood of support, while others just avoided contact altogether.
Often I’d hear: “I don’t know what to say!”
Most people struggle with knowing what to say to someone diagnosed with cancer. The ominous words, “you have cancer” don’t sound much better when rephrased, “I have cancer.” People feel awkward when faced with that kind of news and often don’t know how to react.
Physicians provide breast cancer patients with medical advice, and support groups are designed to help women cope. But friends, coworkers, and even family are not equipped to handle the news to help you deal with the whirlwind.
As patients, we have no choice and immediately, we are forced to deal with the diagnosis: emotionally, physically, and mentally. But as the friend or family member watching from the sidelines, they likely feel helpless right now.
Find the right words to say to someone in the midst of cancer treatment.
If you just found out someone you know received that kind of news, there’s no rule book and I understand it’s hard for you as well. Coming from someone who’s walked this journey, I can only share with what I learned along the way. From my experience and talking with other survivors, below is a list of few do’s and don’ts for talking to someone with a cancer diagnosis.
- Ignore it. Even if you don’t have the perfect words to say, acknowledge the diagnosis, even with a simple, “I’m thinking about you.”
- Act as though she has received a terminal diagnosis because actually, she hasn’t. The survival rate for women five years post-breast cancer diagnosis is a whopping 90%. After ten years, it’s 83%. That’s pretty encouraging, considering the numbers include women who received a late diagnosis.
- Say “I’m so sorry,” and nothing else. Instead, say, “I’m so glad you found out so we can fight this.” And then give her a long hug. Saying sorry is a good start, but follow up with a hopeful statement.
- Stop her from crying. If she needs to cry, let her. Rather than saying “Don’t cry” or “it’ll be okay” just put your arm around her and let her soak the heck out of your shirt. Sometimes, she just needs to let it out without any words at all.
- Ask her what she needs. She doesn’t know or doesn’t want to ask for help. Just jump in, and throw out some ideas. Present her with your plans and ask what is most convenient for her. Maybe you could stop by with a meal (ask her preference for this!)
- Drop by unannounced. Often when I came home after treatment, my energy level was zapped. My emotional state lacked any semblance of normal, which meant I preferred to be alone. Some days, I didn’t take showers, so unexpected company was a big no-no.
- Make it about your pain. You may feel sorrow for having a friend or family member diagnosed with cancer. However, by focusing on your pain, you drown out the fact that she is the one with cancer. Not you. Aside from the physical diagnosis, she likely faces her own emotional battles.
- Remember that she is still the same person. If she loves dancing, cracking up over old sitcoms, or eating frosting from the can, she probably still does. Make sure you share these moments with her whenever she wants and is able to do them. Acknowledge that you still see her as the person she’s always been, not as “a sick person.”
- Say “tell me what to do” — and mean it. When a woman receives a breast cancer diagnosis, one of the first things she discovers is that the rest of life doesn’t slow down. Her dog still needs to be walked, fed, and cuddled no matter how many appointments she needs to get to. Her kids need to be driven home from school. Her car still needs an oil change. Be on hand for that “I need you!” phone call. Trust me; if she’s like any breast cancer survivor I know, she’ll appreciate the thoughtful gesture.
- Relax. You don’t need to carefully measure every word that comes out of your mouth or have every single thing you do with your friend be deep and meaningful. Sometimes she needs a day, an hour or even just five minutes “off the clock” from interrogations, murmured platitudes, or clinical conversations. Tell jokes together, reminisce, talk. Talk like you used to before her diagnosis, and the way you plan to do with her for many healthy years afterward.
- Listen. Along the same lines of talking, listen to her as well. Follow her cues on the topic of conversation. Some days, she will want to agonize over her plight, and other days she will want to talk about the crazy coworker or the latest parenting trend. Empathy goes a long way when someone faces a cancer diagnosis.
- Offer to go with her to treatment. Doing the cancer thing alone tends to be difficult. While some people prefer the solitude, most would like some company as an IV fills their veins with toxins attempting a massacre inside their cells.
- Understand her energy levels might be lower. Depending on the phase of treatment, she may have little to no energy to participate in active adventures. Going on a hike may not be the best recommendation if she just got back from a chemo or radiation session. Be mindful of her energy, both physically and mentally.
- Pray with and for her. Offer prayers, but not as a cliché, a real prayer. If she is also a believer, pray together. And if she’s not, you can still pray for her healing, peace, and speedy recovery.
There is no handbook on protocols to guide you through conversations with a cancer survivor. If you skip the advice from above, follow these two last pieces of advice, and you’ll get through the difficult situation. And you’ll help her through her difficult situation, too.
Don’t: worry that you’re doing this all wrong.
Do: Be there, love her, and take time to find out how to better understand how she’s feeling and what she needs.
Follow my writing journey on InspiredtoWrite.com or learn about my soon to be published memoir, Beyond the Pink Ribbon.