It is very humbling when others dealing with their own cancer struggles reach out to me. Being allowed into an individual’s personal space when I have never met them before is an honor and also is daunting. I don’t have answers for everything, not even close. I can only do my best to listen, empathize, do some research via Google or tell them what worked for me and hope for the best. There is no “one size fits all” answer. I do get personally invested to an extent, because I care. I hate to see people suffer and I hate to see those who love the person with cancer have to sit by the sidelines and hope they will beat it. It’s brutal for all involved. This is why I’ve tried to deal with my cancer by keeping my sense of humor and by being very open about it with those around me. That is what has worked for me, but I definitely am not the average patient, just ask my doctor. Thank goodness he “got” me and the way I, my friends, and my wife handled my time in treatment.
For someone who has never had any experience with cancer, it can be really rough when someone close to them says, “I have cancer” or “my cancer has come back”. We panic, say how unfair it is, cry, get angry, and then once it all has sunk in, wonder what can be done to help that person. I will tell you, having been the person on the receiving end of that news by the doctor, we experience the same emotions magnified by 100. I found myself wondering how it really could be as bad as they were saying it was. Surely I would have had more symptoms? Perhaps it isn’t as serious as they’re saying it is? And then I went through so many scenarios in my brain about what was about to happen to try to save my life, it was nerve wracking. Major surgery? Menopause? Five months of chemo and then radiation? What is going to happen to me? What if I don’t survive surgery? Believe me, the newly diagnosed cancer patient is thinking about everything and wanting to be thinking about nothing all at the same time.
They are facing a daunting task and something they will have to endure alone, even with the best support system possible around them. Physically, you can’t take away the side-effects and trauma the patient is going through, but you can do everything possible to make sure they have no other worries on their plate. Make sure they know you are a phone call or text away and will drive them to treatment, hold their hand, talk with their doctor, and so on, if that is what you both want. Don’t ever force anything, but listen to them. If they say they don’t want you to bother, that isn’t necessarily a no. Don’t push your way in, but don’t give up on them either.
Help set up a meals schedule for their family, if and only if they want you to. Please don’t take it personally if they cannot and will not eat food you make for them. Listen to them. I went through a time when all I wanted was pretzel sticks, fresh fruit, or a smoothie (my wife made one for me every day). I could not eat the beautiful meals she would prepare and I know it hurt her feelings in the beginning, but we then worked out a system where she would ask me before preparing anything. She would give me options and ask what I thought I could eat. We had a time towards the end of treatment when she knew I could eat, but only if I had a few bites from a marijuana cookie. That would stimulate my appetite enough for me to want to eat a small serving. Once we were on the same page, neither of us got frustrated with each other over food again. You also need to keep in mind that something that sounds good one day may seem unappetizing the next. There may be a metallic taste in their mouth that makes consuming most anything difficult. The drugs received in chemo can vary from patient to patient, depending on their cancer, so don’t expect text book side effects or results from treatment.
Sometimes people ask me what to say to people with cancer. I struggle with it because everyone handles it differently. Just make it clear that you are there for them, in whatever form they need you to take. I think the most important thing you can do is learn what NOT to say. Don’t tell them stories about people you know who had cancer unless they beat it and are doing well. Don’t minimize their experience, but don’t act like they’re dying, unless they really are. Try really hard to not make the “aw, you’re a sick person and I feel sorry for you” face at them (that was the worst for me). Don’t tell them you know how they feel, because you don’t. Don’t make grand gestures and then get upset if they don’t fall over themselves to thank you endlessly or aren’t happy about it. Sometimes people don’t know how they will feel in the day to day and showing up at their doorstep with a gift basket might be welcome one day and annoy them the next. If they say they want to be left alone, respect that. It’s okay to send a text or email if you haven’t heard from them to let them know you are thinking about them, or perhaps a quote or meme or cute puppy video you saw on Facebook.
Don’t suffocate them, just perform a gentle acts of kindness and then back away. If they want to talk or see you, they will let you know. Some people cannot ask for help or don’t want to be a bother. I was the later, but also was very happy to let those who wanted to participate in the process into my inner circle, so to speak. It’s my experience that most cancer patients don’t want chemo buddies each week or only want one or two people to experience that with them. Some don’t at all – they want to be alone during that process. Just respect their boundaries. It isn’t easy, especially if the patient doesn’t have a good prognosis. There can be panic and the possibility of regrets. We are all human.
Cancer made me more bold and I see that in others who are currently in treatment. I met others like that when I was still having chemo. For some of us, we want to communicate, let the world in and use that for strength. It was energizing for me to have social media to feel like I wasn’t alone, even when I was flat on the sofa feeling nauseous or waiting to talk with my doctor. I also saw the same people every week come in to get chemo alone with a book and a blanket, or with their spouse by their side. They did not dress up in costumes or make bucket lists or want attention of any kind. We all handle facing our mortality differently. The most important thing I can say I’ve learned is to listen to others. Through their words and their actions, they will tell you what they need or want from you.
Lastly, be sure to ask the loved ones of the patient how they are doing and make sure they have support. I actually wasn’t concerned about my well-being, but wanted to make sure my close friends checked in with my wife. I knew she would be tending to my needs constantly and I wanted her to feel supported and to have back up. It was so nice for me to know that she had a support system and it wasn’t just people wanting to know how I was doing. It’s much easier for a patient to focus on recovery if they know those close to them are okay and not stretched too thin. Enough for now. I’m sure I will have feedback about this from others and I will write more about this subject later. ❤