How to behave when someone has cancer
The strangest thing about my cancer diagnosis was how people treated me. For example, one friend (who will remain anonymous) said, “I wish you hadn’t told me about your cancer as I don’t know how to treat you now”, another just avoided me and told my husband she hasn’t called because she didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t take it personally, as honestly I don’t think I would have known how to approach it if I had been in their shoes.
I have gone through treatment and next March I will, hopefully see the other side, stop taking the pills and be told I am five years clear. However, from diagnosis to now, my life has changed dramatically. I am a different person and the way I deal with people has changed. I am on a mission to share this, with as many people who will listen. Because my cancer journey (so far) has shown me how to behave when someone has cancer. So here are tips on how to behave with explanations why.
Do not avoid them
First and foremost, do not avoid your friend with cancer. Although this may seem obvious, it can be the easiest thing to do, when you don’t know what to do. Maybe you just put off seeing them for now because you feel awkward? But then it gets too late to even mention it? Although everyone is different and everyone will take their cancer diagnosis in their own way, avoiding your friend can never be the right approach. And they will remember. There were so many people who said to me wonderful things at times when they were needed, but it is those who avoided me that I most remember and truthfully, our relationships have never been the same and 4 ½ years on there is still awkwardness in our relationship.
Get in touch
How you get in touch depends on how well you know the person, you may see them every day anyway? Or they may be someone you don’t know that well, but heard on the grapevine that they have cancer. If you give them a call or see them say “I heard you aren’t well?" the worst thing that can happen is they tell you that they don’t want to talk about it. But they will appreciate the call/talk nevertheless. It will be remembered. If they don’t want to talk about it, they will tell you, or maybe someone else will answer the phone and pass on your message. But just that act, to show that you know and care is an important one. Let them lead the conversation, they will tell you as much or as little as they want you to know, or as they can handle saying. And if they want to talk about something completely different, that is OK too. At least they know you made the effort.
Do something practical for them
No matter who your friend is, what they do as a job, what their financial situation is or how their family is constructed, on diagnosis, they will be overwhelmed with things to do. Their normal responsibilities such as looking after the kids, worrying about elderly parent, keeping their car clean…whatever it is they usually do as a matter of course, take care of and take for granted will get pushed to the back of priorities whilst they are dealing with hospital appointments (this also applies to parents of children with cancer also). This is where you can step in and help. My children were quite young when I was diagnosed with cancer and some friends offered to take them out for the day. I really wasn’t happy about this to be honest, as in my mind, I was still in mummy mode and they hadn’t been on an outing without me before. My friends took them out and I spent the day doing nothing much with my husband. It wasn’t a special day for me, but what was great about it was that my kids were taken away from the situation and I knew that I didn’t have to worry about them for a while and they were being entertained. It’s an act of kindness that I won’t forget and it’s something I would do now for someone else if I needed to. Other thoughtful gestures could include making meals for your friend, doing some shopping, getting their medicines. Each person will have different needs as we are all unique, but I can guarantee that they need something that you can offer.
Pick your words wisely
There is nothing worse than being told that someone knows how you feel when they clearly don’t. Having been through the shock of a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment, I still would not pretend to know what someone going through the same diagnosis or treatment as me feels. What they feel is mixed with how they perceive themselves, how their lives have and will change, how their bodies and body image will change and so on. So best to say something like “I am sorry that you have to go through this” which a dear friend said to me, than to try to put yourself in their shoes which can be extremely difficult.
And if you don’t know what to say at all, tell them, it will be appreciated. Silence and honesty can be better than noise and chit chat.
- Dr Shara Cohen