How do you comfort someone whose world is in the process of spinning off its axis? You want to be supportive but when you open your mouth you realise you have NO IDEA what to say so just blurt something out and hope for the best but worry the whole drive home that you offended them.
I get it! I've lost both my parents to cancer (my dad when I was 14 and my mum when I was 26) and even I struggle to find the right words sometimes. While I can't offer a guaranteed phrase to make it all ok, below I share five well-meaning things people have said to me time and time again that actually made things worse:
1. "Just Think Positive"
I'm all for a bit of PMA, but when people told me to "just think positive" I felt it was loaded with subtle pressure - As if bad test results or a worrying scan were because I wasn't being cheery enough. Did everyone think my upbeat thought patterns alone were enough to cure my dad of the cancer spreading through his body or beat the growth in my mum's brain? More worryingly, people telling me to stay positive made me feel that I couldn't talk about my sadness, fear or anxiety. All of those big, fat, scary emotions are totally natural when you have a family member with cancer, so I found it frustrating when someone seemed to judge or be dismissive of them.
2."I Know Exactly How You Feel ..."
A few days after a biopsy showed my mum's brain tumour was terminal, a friend told me he knew exactly how I felt because his mum had high blood pressure and his dad had gout. I'm not trying to turn this into a game of Top Trumps but just be aware that you never know exactly what someone else is going through so don't pretend that you do. Even siblings experiencing the same situation will have different reactions, stresses, and challenges. By all means share your story, but think twice about how you do it.
3. "If I Can Do Anything, Just Ask" (and then disappear)
It can be hard to ask for help when you're caring for a loved one with cancer. Some feel that admitting they are struggling means they are failing. Others worry their loved one will feel guilty if they admit they are having a hard time coping. Or it could simply be they don't want to put others out. So if you offer help to a friend, make sure it's not an empty gesture. In the midst of the craziness of coping with cancer, you can't always see what needs to be done because your brain is focussed on putting one foot in front of the other. So don't always wait for your friend to ask for help - instead of saying "if there's anything I can do ..." try "I'm at a loose end next Tuesday so I could sit with your dad while you have some time to yourself" or "I'm free at the weekend so put your ironing to one side and I'll pick it up".
4. "Awww Babe, Anyway ..."
A few months into caring for my mum and I felt I was losing my personality now that my days were filled with radiotherapy sessions, medication schedules and researching alternative treatments. It wasn't long before I was struggling to have a normal conversation, panicking that I had nothing to talk about other than cancer and that morning's episode of Jeremy Kyle. When I did start to open up, it sometimes felt as if friends were waiting for me to finish so they could tell me what was going on in their life. I get that talking about cancer isn't as fun as that hen do you're going on in Marbs next month and I know friendship is a two-way thing, but remember there's a difference between listening to someone and truly hearing what they're saying. Don't give up on a friend who isn't being as "fun" as usual. Trust me, nobody is as excited as they are to get back to their old selves.
5. "Why Don't You ...?"
Sometimes you need practical advice. Other times you just need to rant. Often, when I wanted to let off some steam, friends would reply "why don't you ...?". I didn't want to seem ungrateful but if the answer were that simple, I probably would have already done it. When friends asked "why don't you get a professional carer?" or "why don't you see if there are clinical trials?" or "why don't you send your mum to a hospice?" I knew their suggestions were well meaning but I would think if only you knew! It's easy to underestimate how much money, how many phone calls, how much paperwork and how many reference numbers it takes to do even the seemingly most simple of things like getting a disabled parking badge or arranging professional care. When you're emotionally and physically exhausted, it can be jarring for someone to make it seem as if you're not putting in enough effort.
Please don't let this put you off being there for a friend. I know it's tough to know what to do but trust me when I say that thoughtful words or a heartfelt gesture can help light the way for someone making it through their darkest days.
Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared on www.rochellebugg.com