If someone close to you was diagnosed with cancer, would you know what to say or do? I think a lot of people struggle with how to initiate a conversation when they learn of a friend or co-worker’s diagnosis. Before being diagnosed with breast cancer myself, I would not have been confident doling out advice on this topic but I’ve learned a thing or two in the last seven months. A lot of it comes from the people in my life who knew exactly what to do.
1. Imagine if it was you. You are still the same person with some very scary news. It doesn’t change your personality or who you were leading up to this point. Putting yourself in the shoes of your friend is a good first step to initiating a conversation. If it’s early on, they may not have a lot of answers yet, but there are questions you can ask. “How are you feeling?’ This can mean physically or emotionally or both. It’s a loaded question to be sure and the answer could be short, or it could take a while. “Are you ok talking about it?” If the answer is “no”, or “not yet”, it’s time to change the subject. If the answer is “yes”, here are a few things you might want to try. “How did you find out?” “Do the doctors have a treatment plan for you?” “Do you mind if I share your news?” Sometimes it’s about letting that person talk and you don’t have to do anything but listen.
2. If the person has already started chemo, it’s better to text them than to call or drop by. A simple question would be “Is this a good day or a bad one?” Chemotherapy can take a lot out of a person but most aren’t sick every day. They appreciate the messages and knowing someone cares about them even if they can’t respond right away. Sometimes they won’t respond at all but it doesn’t mean they haven’t read your message. If it’s a good day, you can ask if they want company, or better yet, if you can take them out of the house for a couple of hours. If you can’t drop by, ask if they are up for a phone call. It’s easy to feel isolated when you have cancer and the world continues to go on without you. Connecting with a friend over the phone is a simple way to alleviate that feeling.
3. Cards and flowers. These gestures may seem small to the person sending them, but for the person receiving them, it can be a total mood changer. I’m not sure if people realized how much it meant to me having a card arrive in the mail every few days or having a bouquet replace the one that had started to wither. I knew it took thought, care and effort to do these things and it made a huge difference in keeping my spirits up. You don’t have to write any more than “I’m thinking of you” in the card if you’re not sure what else to say.
4. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc. Dropping a physical card in the mail is not always convenient but sending a message through Facebook takes only a few minutes. Don’t feel you always have to be motivating and inspiring either. It’s fine to pass along something funny or cute. If you write a long beautiful message, that’s always welcomed too. Sometimes the person may not have it in them to write a long message back, but know that they appreciate your words. You may have unknowingly helped them through a particularly tough afternoon. Remember that someone might still be struggling months after diagnosis and most notes and offers come in the first month. Checking in once in a while, even just a heart emoji, is a great way to help.
5. Set up a meal train for your friend. It’s a website that allows friends and relatives to make a meal and drop it off when it’s most needed. It’s free and convenient and it means the patient isn’t getting four casseroles in one day.
6. Offer to come to appointments, chemo, wig shopping, head shaving, or tests. When one person is off sick, their spouse sometimes has to do everything else. That includes taking care of children, grocery shopping, cooking and working. In my case, my husband came to most doctors appointments and a couple of chemotherapy visits but I had friends join me for the rest. It was time for us to catch up and I felt truly supported.
7. It’s ok to talk about yourself and your problems. I had so many people stop what they were saying to mention that it was nothing compared to what I was going through. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can be miserable about your cold even though I have cancer. This is not a competition and your feelings are still important. Sometimes the patient doesn’t want to think about their lives for a few minutes. Focusing on you might be a good distraction.
8. Educate yourself. Do a little reading of your own to better understand what your friend is going through. It might help to check websites like Cancer.org or Cancer.ca. The more in tune you are with what might be going on, the easier it is to ask the right questions or offer help.
9. Share your positive cancer survivor stories. “My aunt had breast cancer 25 years ago and is alive and well today.” That’s a great nugget to share. Please avoid “My aunt died from breast cancer.” No one going through treatment wants to hear that. Tell that story to anyone else but the person fighting for their life. I’m also going to throw in “Western medicine/big Pharma/chemotherapy is BAD, all-natural is good.” If you have survived cancer by going completely natural, you are welcome to share this information. If not, please don’t. I know that leading a healthy lifestyle can increase your chances of survival but I also know that oncologists want you to live.
10. Here are a few websites or programs you can share with your co-worker/friend to make her/his life easier. Making a donation to one of these groups is always welcomed too. Some of these are specifically for breast cancer but others aren’t.
www.lgfb.ca (Look Good Feel Better)
www.cottagedreams.ca (donated cottage vacations for cancer survivors)
www.pinkwigproject.org (fun wigs for breast cancer patients)
www.knittedknockerscanada.com (for mastectomy patients)
www.victoriasquiltscanada.com (handmade quilts for cancer patients)