This article is a re-print from a two-part series by Holly Bertone at Coconut Head’s Cancer Survival Guide.
From the moment a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it seems like everything changes with your relationship. But it shouldn’t.
You’re stuck between wanting to say the right thing… and not wanting to say the wrong thing. By offering to help, but not wanting to bother her and respect her privacy. What do I do? How can I help? Let’s start with what to say. Or not say.
Talking About Your Relative With Cancer
Human instinct is to go with the familiar. Everyone has an “Aunt Betty” who had cancer. Maybe Aunt Betty is fine. Maybe Aunt Betty died. Maybe Aunt Betty’s cancer was 20 years ago… or 20 days ago. It’s not a good idea to say “Aunt Betty had cancer and she died.” Or “Aunt Betty had cancer and she’s fine.” Everyone is different and you may not know the extent of your loved one’s diagnosis. It’s totally fine to bring up Aunt Betty. As in, “when Aunt Betty was diagnosed, I know how scared she was and how much I wanted to help her. How are you doing? What can I do for you?”
When going through cancer treatment, we are going to be completely needy, and also push you away and want privacy. We are going to be depressed and angry about the diagnosis, and possibly obsessive about doing research. This is all totally and completely normal. Don’t try and talk us out of being a little crazy at first. Don’t over-react. Just love me.
More than words, what we need is for you to listen. Listen to what we need. And this is going to change day by day and even hour by hour. There were times I needed to vent about cancer and how much I hated having it and how sick I was and the whole boo hoo. Just listen. Don’t be grossed out. And when I’m done, try and make me laugh. I’ll need it.
There were times when the Big C was verboten. I wanted to hear all about your kids and their poopy diapers and the gossip of the moms of the playground. I wanted to hear about your dates and how wonderful Mr. Right is or how horrible the date with Mr. Wrong went. I want to hear about Mr. Whiskers and how he cute he is when he sleeps or how Bandit chases the mailman. I want to hear about how your husband doesn’t pick up his socks and how annoying and intrusive his mother is. Don’t feel bad venting about the everyday in your life. Don’t feel bad monopolizing the conversation. It’s keeping my mind off how much cancer hurts.
Suggestions On What To Say/Do And What Not To Say/Do
Don’t offer advice unless asked specifically. Cancer isn’t cancer. It’s not a one size fits all. Everyone’s diagnosis is different, everyone’s treatment is different. Don’t tell me what to eat or not eat. Don’t tell me to try some crazy homeopathic remedy. I’m going to listen to my doctors who are a team of medical professionals working on my case.
Don’t tell me that I’ll be fine. I may not be. I may be facing mortality. I understand you mean well, but it belittles the treatment. Don’t tell me you know what I’m going through unless you’ve been through it too. Tell me you love me. Tell me you’re there for me. Tell me you’ll help take care of my family.
Do encourage me to get a second opinion if I’m not happy with my doctor. Do encourage me to go to the doctor in the first place when I find a weird lump or turn 40 and need a mammogram or know that something isn’t right.
Pay attention to cues when you speak with them. Follow their lead, and respect their wishes.
You are completely helpless. Your loved one has cancer and you can’t take it away from them. You can’t take away the pain, the anger, the fear. I sometimes think that the loved ones have a tougher time with cancer than the patient. The patient gets to fight every day and that is empowering. The supporter gets to watch their loved one go through something horrible.
Send me a card or an email. Make it cheery and funny. I need to laugh. Laughter kills cancer cells.
I’m going to put on strong front and say I don’t need help. Give me a multiple choice test.
“What do you need?”
“Nothing, I’m good.”
This approach may work a little better.
“Do you want me to bring dinner over for your family or do you want me to do laundry for you one afternoon? Do you prefer Monday or Thursday evening?”
“Why don’t you bring dinner over on Monday night.”
“Lasagna or chicken?”
Offer to drive me to appointments, take notes during an appointment, do something for the kids, do laundry, wash dishes, do research (ie – there are organizations that clean cancer patient’s homes for free), send a note or email, make a donation… the list is endless depending on your loved one’s age and life situation and responsibilities.
Girl Power Notebook For A Cancer Patient
Susan at Organized 31 made this adorable Girl Power notebook for breast cancer awareness month. What a perfect gift for a cancer patient to take to appointments to take notes, or write and journal during or after treatment.
Check With The Family First
Everyone is different. Cancer will rock your loved one’s world. There is nothing you can do to fix it and to take the cancer away. As much as you want that to happen. And there is nothing you can say that will make them feel better. But knowing you care and support them will.
The thing is… your loved one doesn’t even know what they want or need. Their head is spinning from the cancer news and treatment. Check in with their family and see how you can help.
Remember the spouse and children. They need your support just as much as your friend. If not more. Give them some time off. Give them a treat. Let them talk or vent.
If they are going through chemo, chances are their sense of smell is going to be altered. Don’t send flowers or if you do, check in with the spouse first to see if it’s ok. The smell of flowers may be repugnant to them. Same with candles. In your head, it’s healing and therapeutic. The smell of a candle might make them nauseous. If you do want to do something like this, how about a pretty plant or something for the front porch? One final thought while we’re smelling here… don’t wear perfume if you go see her.
Their sense of taste will probably be altered. Food that they enjoy and love may be repugnant to them. I had weird cravings going through chemo and there were times that the only thing I wanted to eat was Ore Ida crinkle fries. This will change throughout treatment, so again, best to check. But the family will still need to eat. Feed them. Send a care package with healthy food and snacks.
You can be patient. You can pray. You can just be. And that’s what your loved one needs the most.
Love, hugs, and wishing there were answers.
Holly Bertone is originally from Waynesboro, PA. She holds a Master’s Degree from Johns Hopkins University, a Bachelor’s Degree from Elizabethtown College, and is a Project Management Professional (PMP). Holly is the CEO and President of Pink Fortitude, LLC, a company dedicated to promoting inspiration and positive self-esteem to cancer survivors and ALL women. She recently published her first book, “Coconut Head’s Cancer Survival Guide – My Journey from Diagnosis to ‘I Do’.” You can follow Holly on her website and blog: coconutheadsurvivalguide.com. She is passionate about reaching out to breast cancer survivors, and volunteers for organizations supporting our Veterans such as Honor Flight Network and the USO. In her free time, she loves to garden, putter around the house, hit flea markets, antique stores and yard sales, and drink a cup of coffee on her back porch. Holly is married to a retired Green Beret, is a stepmother, and lives in Alexandria, VA.