I set up Not Another Bunch Of Flowers after my own cancer diagnosis - which inspired me to create a website that offers friends and family the chance to show how much you care in a meaningful way with gifts that are practical as well as caring. Many people want to send a little token of their well-wishes and support, but just don't know what to send. Since setting it up, I have spoken to literally hundreds of people about their concerns for a friend, relative or loved one and what they themselves are feeling at such a difficult time. I try to offer good advice on suitable gifts, as well as practical ways they can help; and also suggestions on what is (or isn't) the right thing to say.
I thought it would be useful to share some of the emotions that I know many people go through when they first learn about their loved ones cancer diagnosis. I think it always helps to know that other people are going through the same feelings and experiences. So, here are the thoughts of a good friend of mine who recently lost her best friend to cancer and the emotions she went through.
When a friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it can feel as though your world has fallen apart. Yes, it's important not to make it all about you, but you are still allowed to feel, to cry, to be angry, and to be consumed by it. You go through such a range of emotions but do you know what, these emotions are actually perfectly normal. Having seen several friends through a diagnosis, I remember vividly some of the feelings that came to the surface but I also remember how necessary they all were to help me process things in my own mind. It can be a confusing and traumatic time but I believe that allowing yourself the time to work through your feelings enables you to be a stronger support in the long term.
Shock - I remember the utter shock at discovering that my 27-year-old friend had breast cancer. I had always considered it to be a disease that older women got and I was staggered that someone I knew, someone who was so healthy and full of life could have been told she had cancer. Shock is an interesting one because it can actually render you speechless! However, it is useful to regain the power of speech as soon as possible or you won't be that useful as the months go on!
Guilt - This is a big one, particularly if it is a family member. Why do they have cancer and you don't? What is different about them? You can spend time feeling guilty about NOT having cancer (especially if you also feel a sense of relief) but in the end it doesn't get you anywhere and will eat you up, so you must eventually let it go.
Acting normal - It took me a little while to realise that my poorly friend wanted to hear about the mundane and everyday stuff that was happening to me. Just because they are having treatment or receiving bad news does not mean that they don't want to hear tales about your boyfriend or your work strife. Your problems might not feel significant in the grand scheme of things, but a break from the big stuff is often really interesting! Likewise, telling someone who may not get to have children because of their cancer that you are pregnant can feel tough, but in my experience, it can bring them joy and pleasure outside of their own daily problems. Normality is pretty ace sometimes!
Sadness - Crying is allowed. Yes it is nice to maintain a stiff upper lip for your friend or relative but crying is actually perfectly acceptable and gives you the chance to let your feelings out. Bottling up your emotions won't help anyone so have a good cry when you need to (just don't do it ALL the time or it can get a bit depressing for the person with the actual cancer!)
Fear - It is okay to be scared. Cancer is an unknown. At the start of someone's diagnosis and treatment there are a lot of what ifs and a lot of unanswered questions so being frightened or fearful of the future is totally legitimate. You don't always have to be the brave one.
Pessimism - Whether you are a glass half empty person or spend your life as an eternal optimist, cancer has a way of blackening the mood. It is a dark cloud on an otherwise sunny day. It has a way of making you fear the worst but don't worry, these thoughts of death and terminal illness are normal and just because you think it, it doesn't mean it is going to happen.
Anger - Wanting to shout, scream, stamp your feet, punch a wall (well, maybe not this one) and swear a lot is DEFINITELY allowed and do you know what, I would say it should be actively encouraged. Cancer is evil and being cross with it, so cross with it that you want to kick a chair, is totally fine!
Humour - News flash, sometimes it is okay to make jokes! It doesn't have to be gloom and doom all the time and lightening the mood can offer some much needed respite for both cancer patient and the support squad! My friend even named her post-mastectomy boob Frankenboob and once she showed us it was okay to laugh about stuff sometimes, the floodgates were well and truly opened and made everyone more at ease with her condition. Go on, have a giggle, I dare you!
Anikka Burton is the founder of www.notanotherbunchofflowers.com and was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33.