Everyone’s had a situation where they didn’t know what to say or do.
Once, when I was a teenager, I went to visit a friend who was in jail. It was just like the movies with him on one side of the glass and me on the other. We both picked up our phones, and I said, “Keeping out of trouble?” It must have been the right thing to say, because we both laughed.
Funerals can have the same impact. What do you say to someone who’s loved one just passed away? Everyone struggles with what to say and do. No one wants to make an already delicate situation any worse by saying or doing the wrong thing.
A cancer diagnosis, or even being tested for cancer, can have a similar effect. What do you say to someone who is busy having tests and waiting for results? What do you say to someone who, after any visit to see the doctor, could be leaving the building with a cancer diagnosis? How do you react if someone tells you they have cancer?
These are all good questions. Unfortunately, there aren’t clear-cut answers, even for someone like me who’s had cancer.
Each person’s response to cancer is slightly different, so an appropriate answer for one person may not be the perfect answer for someone else. This is where knowing your loved one is critical, but it’s a double-edged sword. On one side, knowing the person well means you’re more likely to say and do the right thing. On the other side, you’re the one who’ll have the strongest feelings of regret if you do misstep. No one wants to hurt the one they love but it’s almost inevitable, especially when the person you care about doesn’t always know what they want either.
Even with this uncertainty, you can never truly go wrong if you:
Think about this last one for a minute, because it may be the hardest to do.
When you’re with people you care about, the urge to fix things can be very strong. If someone says they can’t get their baby to sleep through the night, everyone within hearing distance has suggestions. If you’re having car trouble, everyone will have suggestions about where to get it fixed or what make and model to buy to replace it. If someone is sick with cancer, everyone has suggestions about what should be done to ensure the person gets better. It could be taking supplements, trying complementary or alternative medicine, deciding what treatments to have, or determining whether or not to have breast reconstruction.
There are so many decisions for the person to make in quick succession and the amount of new information can be overwhelming. Providing additional information, unasked, can complicate decision-making instead of helping it. Know that your friend or family member will ask for your opinion when they’re ready for it.
As the cancer patient…
Listen to your body and only do what you can physically handle. Take care of your emotional health. And, whenever you can, recognize that the people around you need some time to adjust to your diagnosis. Like you, they’re learning what to do and say.
Over 30-years of writing experience, over five years as a cancer survivor, and a lifetime purveyor of wit and laughter.