When a cancer diagnosis rocks your world, it affects not only you but everyone around you in different ways. Family and friends, often reeling from the shock of the diagnosis, may want to assist but may not have the first clue of what they can do to help.
So, I've listed below some things which I’ve found useful and other ideas that I wish people around me had thought of when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer aged 24. Some ideas for what to say and how to help:
1. Never use the word victim when speaking to or about someone with cancer.
They are "living with cancer," or "a cancer survivor" or even "doing just fine"!
2. Be aware of your body language.
There’s nothing more annoying than someone’s face with "poor you" plastered all over it. Obviously we want to know you care, but be careful not to pity us or patronize us.
3. If you write to us, be as positive as possible.
Make it clear that you don’t expect a reply to your letter or email.
4. Offer to set up email groups for us.
Group emails are a good way to update friends and non-immediate family members, and this way we don't have to repeat ourselves over and over again, which is boring and exhausting.
5. When you’re visiting, keep conversations light.
Laughter really is the best medicine.
6. Know that we don’t always mean what we say.
Everything can be very confusing, so please don’t question us too much or take anything as set in stone.
7. Please allow us to be grumpy and angry.
But don’t be overly sympathetic!
8. Go with the flow.
Be aware that how we feel now could be radically different compared to how we feel tomorrow or even in a few hours from now.
Some ideas for what NOT to say and what NOT to do:
9. Don’t say "I wish there was something I could do."
If you genuinely want to help, there’s lots you can do!
10. Don’t talk to us in hushed tones and don’t cry around us.
Other peoples’ fears and tears are hard work.
11. If you offer help and it’s declined, please don’t take offense.
Being respectful of our wishes is much more helpful than trying to cajole us.
12. Please don’t voice your concerns about our treatments, unless we ask for your opinion and/or advice.
Be supportive of our choices, even if you’ve got reservations.
13. Don’t tell us stories of other people’s cancer.
We don’t want to hear about old Betty Horne from down the lane who died of cancer. This is neither helpful nor uplifting!
14. Don’t tell us how to think or feel.
Being told to think positively rarely has the desired effect.
15. Don't expect us to want to chat when you do.
Being a good listener is really important, but please understand that there may be times when we really don’t want to talk, so don’t try to push us into it.
16. Let us bring up how we feel.
There’s a difference between "How are you?" and "How ARE you?" One’s a general question you'd ask of any healthy person, but the latter is more meaningful; it's a way of searching for a deep, heartfelt answer as to how we REALLY feel. We don’t always want to describe how we really feel so let us bring it up, rather than you.
17. Don’t make us feel guilty about not being in touch.
Please don’t leave us voicemails or emails asking us to call so you won’t worry – we'll call in our own time!
Having lived with cancer for eight years now, I've met many people who have no idea how to speak to people with cancer and I've been on the receiving end of comments like "So you're still here, then?" (That was from a very insensitive shopkeeper who I now visit less frequently because of her ridiculous and unthoughtful comments.) But at the same time, I completely sympathize with people who don't know what to say, so I hope that these tips help to guide you when it comes to communicating with a cancer survivor.
For anyone newly diagnosed, or even if you know someone with cancer, my book The Cancer Journey - Positive Steps to Help Yourself Heal, tells you things your doctor probably won't, from how to deal with side-effects from treatment, how to ask for help, what to eat to support your body and how to create a positive outlook and process your emotions about your diagnosis.
Wishing you health and happiness xxx