There are much scarier things than Halloween. Like cancer. Most of us have been touched by cancer in some way, and we are often at a loss for the right words or deeds when a friend or relative receives this diagnosis. While I have been fortunate to date not to have had to deal with cancer personally, I do have quite a bit of experience with grief, loss and life-threatening health ordeals. I have a teenage child who was born with a host of medical issues and a severe facial difference, and I know what it means to stand on the front lines of making others uncomfortable and unsure of what to say or do. He has had numerous corrective surgeries throughout his life, which means that I have pretty much seen and heard it all over the last fourteen years—everything from advice, compassion and concern, to avoidance and, on occasion, even rudeness, believe it or not. I have also been on the receiving end of well-intentioned words of wisdom and countless acts of kindness from others, which has meant the world to me during tough times.
In general, I find that most everyone I have encountered truly means well, but some people just simply don’t know better. And regardless of the difficult situations we face, grief is grief and loss is loss, and we all need to recognize when people are at their limit and in need of kind words and deeds; we need to know what helps and what hurts. To that end, we talked to a few friends who have fought cancer, and they bravely agreed to share what they found helpful so we can all be more confident in what we say or do:
Barbara Keith Payne, breast cancer survivor from Nashville. Diagnosed summer of 2009:
Everyone experiences this crazy disease differently. Diagnoses are different, so treatments are different. Some people want complete privacy; others want to tell you all their stories over and over. If you have a friend who is diagnosed, it is hard to know how much they need you and what they need from you but believe me, they need you. My main advice is to reach out in a way that is about her, not about you.
Great things to do and say:
- Offer to bring a meal. If she is a close friend and you are organized, offer to be her meal coordinator.
- Write a card, an email, leave her a voicemail. Reach out to her, but make it clear you have no expectation of a response. Just let her know you are thinking about her. It matters.
- Drop a little something by her house and leave it at her door. A nice candle, some sweet treat you know she likes, something funny, etc.
- Try to find out her treatment schedule so that you can send her an encouraging email or note on days that she has chemo.
- If you are a close friend, offer to go with her for appointments – chemo, head-shaving, wig fittings and plastic surgery appointments are much more bearable with a buddy!
- Visit her and chat and don’t hold back with what is going on with you. Cancer treatment can be very isolating and she will not mind hearing about your daily dramas. Be sensitive to how tired chemo makes her. I had to throw a few friends out of my house when I was just too exhausted to chat.
Things people did for me that I remember:
- A dear friend washed my hair and styled it after I had my surgery and could not lift my arms.
- A friend decorated my house for Halloween.
- A friend came to my house and wrapped my Christmas presents after I had an unexpected surgery the week before Christmas.
- A friend had my schedule down and would always email me the day before chemo.
- Many many people entertained my children in countless special ways.
- Many many people fed my family. Some of them I did not even know very well and that did not matter one bit. Also, meals do not need to be gourmet. My kids’ favorite was Publix fried chicken! The time and energy saved with not having to plan and cook dinner is a huge gift. A gift card to Whole Foods or Pei Wei or Zoe’s is also a great idea.
Things NOT to do or say:
- Don’t leave a voicemail asking for a return phone call.
- Don’t tell stories about other people who have breast cancer that is “much worse than yours.”
- Don’t tell a cancer patient that it’s all in their attitude.
Pat McRee, 3-time, 20-year cancer survivor from Memphis, is the author of Support to Go: The Unbook for the Journey through Breast Cancer. She is also the Director of the Flying Colors Cancer Network:
I could probably give you a long string of advice about what to say and not say. Everyone knows people who have triumphed over cancer. Everyone also knows someone who has died from it. Here are my suggestions:
- Tell your friend who has been diagnosed the happy ending stories … the ones where life not only went on, but got better, because of all the gifts hidden in the journey.
- Don’t go silent because you’re worried about saying the wrong thing. Having a friend back away is heartbreaking. Just say, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.” Or, “Tell me how you’re feeling about all of this.”
- Don’t say, “Let me know if I can do anything to help you,” and let it drop. Instead, hand your friend a piece of paper. Say, “Write down two things I can do for you this week.” Then do those things!
Heidi, from Birmingham, diagnosed with Stage 1 lobular breast cancer in September of 2009, now a 4-year survivor:
It is so hard to know what to say and do when a friend or loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer but here is what I have learned over the years:
- Be an encourager.
- Be a shoulder to cry on.
- Be a good listener.
- Introduce them to other friends who have walked in their shoes and are now living a NORMAL life.
I live in this amazing community where my friends all came together and picked up the pieces of my life at a time when all I could focus on was survival and getting this cancer out of my body. Here is a sampling of some of the many gifts I received from friends:
- The greatest gift is the gift of time. As an active person, it was hard to put my life on hold and watch everyone else go on their merry way. My life stopped and went into survival mode while all my friends still had tennis games, Bible studies, lunches, etc. It meant so much when people to took time to do things like pray with me, bring me lunch or coffee, wash my hair, go grocery shopping for me, go on short walks with me, etc.
- Friends took over my calendar and my kids were shuttled to and from every activity never missing a beat.
- Coordinating a healing service through your church is a great gift for everyone!
- I received many race bibs from friends who ran the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure – how humbling!
- Friends took me to doctors appointments and laughed and cried with me.
- Food was an essential as I couldn’t think about cooking.
- A simple card saying I am praying for you!
- PJ’s and soft tanks are great gifts. You spend lots of time in both. If you have surgery you need those button up PJ tops.
- My hairdresser even came over to wash and style my hair!
- Friends who sat with my husband and mother at the hospital during my lengthy surgery. My husband’s running group took turns being at the hospital for 8 hours so he didn’t have to be alone. What a dedicated group of men.
If you are a survivor get out there and share you wisdom of what to expect. Show others you are living a great life. Sometimes even a “show and tell” helps when facing reconstruction. I had a couple of friends who pulled up their shirts so I could see their reconstruction from 5 and 10 years ago and encouraged me that I would look great!
When I arrived in my neighborhood after my hospital stay, I was overwhelmed seeing every mailbox displaying a pink breast cancer ribbon in support of me, thanks to a sweet neighbor who coordinated the effort. How amazing our community is!
Angela T., from Louisville. Breast cancer survivor:
I have given this thought and obviously, each situation is different, so what to say and not to say varies with the prognosis and the relationship. Something that was said to me, which I discovered along the way gave me strength to focus on the battle and give in to needing help was something like this:
“I am so sorry that you are having to go through this, but I know that you will handle it with the same grace, strength and determination that you exhibit in everything you do. Please focus on yourself and getting well. As hard as it may be, your friends want to help so please let them so that you can focus on you and your family—that is what matters most! If there is anything I can do, please know that I am here for you.”
When I find out others have cancer now, I typically send them a card (maybe flowers if a closer friend) letting them know I am thinking of them and am available should they need anything. If I know them better, the first thing I think of is signing up to take dinner. I must say that it was so nice getting mail—cards and notes from people just letting me know they were thinking about me. It meant so much because not being in your daily routine and interacting with people at school, etcetera, makes you feel a bit out of touch with the “real” world. I still have every piece of mail I ever received, and I think you especially remember the meals, notes and flowers you receive from people you were not that close to.
Caroline, from Louisville, currently in treatment for breast cancer:
First, everyone experiences cancer differently. What I find helpful may not be what others have found helpful. That being said, I have been very fortunate to have a large group of friends and family who have provided meals to us 3 times per week since my treatment started. This has allowed me to focus on my children and treatment and less on making dinner. It has been a huge help!
I have received over 300 cards from friends and family. It is so nice to read these and know that people are praying for me and genuinely care.
I have had complete strangers strike up a conversation with me about cancer, detailing someone else’s fight, and even one person told me about his girlfriend who was a 5 year survivor and then died after the cancer came back. This is not something anyone wants to hear, especially someone hoping to survive a Stage 3 cancer diagnosis! Be kind, think before you speak, just pray for healing and tell the person with cancer that you are thinking of them and offer to help in any way that you are able. If they want your help, they will take you up on it. Don’t have your feelings hurt if they don’t!
Also, do not try to become someone’s best friend during a cancer diagnosis if you weren’t already friends before they found out they had cancer.
Never judge someone until you have experienced what they have. Losing my hair was traumatic. Yes, it will grow back! If you plan on telling someone with cancer that their hair will grow back, you should be prepared to shave your head right along with the person and continue shaving it until the person’s hair does grow back! It is often gone for well over a year.
Cancer sucks and it changes your life. Be a good friend who understands that the person after cancer will never again be the person before cancer! They will be stronger, happier, smarter and better in the end.
Craig, from Louisville. Non-Hodgkins lymphoma survivor:
So after thinking about this, the best piece of advice I can offer is to keep asking if the patient AND the caregiver need help. Oftentimes, I thought, “I don’t need help. I’m fine. I can do this,” especially at the beginning of treatment. I think it’s because I was raised on ABC after-school specials which taught me to say that, but I digress. People always asked how I was doing and if I needed anything, and while I may have said that I was ok at first, I learned to listen to my body and as people asked at the end, I was much more willing to ask for help because I was simply exhausted.
I mention the caregivers because they simply take a beating. Not only are they having to do double duty with kids, meals, carpooling, cleaning the house, etcetera, but that are having to witness the one that they love go through something horrible. People tend to forget about them and they need a break, as well. Sometimes it’s better to just do something rather than ask if they need help because they are trying to hold everything together.
Anna, breast cancer survivor, from Jackson, Mississippi: