Cancer is a hell of a journey no matter how you fight it. Going it alone seems like an impossible task and if you have the option to have your load lightened with the support of friends and family, you should take any help you feel comfortable with. Hardships surrounding trauma don't just affect the patient, it hits their caretakers too--and there aren't a lot of guidelines on what to say to someone in a crisis and how to help them. Of course, the sentiment of wanting to sympathize and offer help is appreciated when you have cancer, but there are some things you need think about before you say them...
"Don't worry. I'm sure you're fine."
When I found a lump, my first instinct was to tell all of my closest friends. Every single person I told said not to worry because I didn't know what it was yet. Don't worry? I found a lump in my breast. Worrying is allowed in that situation. It is unbelievably frustrating to be experiencing an emotion and hear that you shouldn't feel that way, regardless of whether or not you "should". I understand that worrying doesn't help and we all have our dramatic/unnecessary emotional moments in life but cancer is not one of them. From the first symptom before diagnosis to every check-up after treatment you worry and that is not only normal but it is also okay.
"I'm coming over to..."
A lot of times people react to stressful situations by asserting control. The thing to remember about your friend having cancer or whatever trauma they are experiencing is it's not yours to control. No one is expecting you to fix the problem either. Help and assistance from others is essential to survival but it should be on the patient's terms. Instead of assuming their needs, ask for them first. If the patient is having a hard time naming them, offer a few options of things you can do for them (such as a ride to a doctor's appointment, walking their dog, delivering a meal, etc.) and see if it would help. You can also reach out and ask one of their caregivers how you can help lighten their load. Always ask before assuming, sometimes extra help and visitors can be stressful, so be conscientious about the length of your visits, too.
"I'm sure you're not up for it."
One of the hardest things for me during my fight was not feeling "normal". Everyone wanted to be at my doctor's appointments but no one wanted to hang out on a Friday night. Occasionally I would receive a picture of all of my friends out together. Thanks for the invite? People always assumed that I wouldn't be up for an outing--because most of the time I wasn't. But it still would have been nice to know I was included. Reach out to the patients you know. It's so important as a patient to have fun and do as many "normal" activities as possible, especially on those days when you feel good.
"You should get another opinion."
I appreciate your concern for my health and making sure it's in the best of hands. Like everything in life though, fighting isn't all physical and takes a lot of mental strength. Second opinions can be really helpful, but feeling like someone doubts your doctors or treatment plan can be completely unnerving. Show your support.
"Everyone stares at you."
You know, believe it or not, we notice the stares too. And those moments that we don't? No need to point them out to us.
"I'm sure you don't wanna talk about it..."
When you have cancer, all you think about is cancer. Everything reminds you of it. A lot of patients want to talk about it too. I remember thinking of ways I could redirect conversations to what I was going through because it felt good to process verbally. I love when people ask questions because it shows their concern for me. It's important to respect the patient and if they're up for "talking cancer" at the moment or not. But I would recommend asking if they want to/need to, or if it's OK to ask them specific questions you have. Talking can be a good release and eliminate some stress and worries.
"I totally understand."
Do you? Because last time I checked you never had cancer. Having cancer doesn't put me above you in any way and I acknowledge that cancer or not, we all experience stress and suffering in life. No one escapes pain. You may sympathize with me, you may feel for me, you may even hurt with me. But how can you understand my suffering if I have yet to make sense of it all? There are a million things about dealing with cancer that you never know about until you live it. I never expect my friends to understand this and I would never want them to because that would require living it. I just want them to let me share and experience how I am feeling, just like I want them to share their own experiences with me. If a patient isn't seeking advice, you don't have to offer it. If you feel the need to say things to them for your own wellbeing, try sharing your thoughts with anyone other than the patient first.
"It's not as bad as chemo though, right?"
How do I answer that? Is "bad" based on the number of days spent nauseous and the hours spent hooked up to a poison pump? Or does "bad" relate to intense burns, uncontrollable emotions, the long recovery post-surgery or the fear surrounding an upcoming scan? The point is that it's hard to compare all of the different steps that are taken to beat cancer. None of these treatments and appointments are particularly enjoyable, and the effects of them can be cumulative. Also, being able to express true feelings is helpful to coping. No one should have to minimize their fear because the next treatment sounds less taxing than the previous one. So to comfort a patient about an upcoming procedure, don't remind them that this one might sound "easier" than another. Or how their treatment could be worse. We know that. But hearing that doesn't relieve any stress surrounding it and can actually increase it.
"God only gives you what you can handle."
These words could have truth to them but phrases like these, and other platitudes, don't offer much comfort. And when everything feels terrible, it is comfort that we need. Comfort can come in various forms but I have found that physical presence and acknowledgement can be the most useful. When I'm in the gutter, I don't expect you to pull me out of it. What I need is someone to sit with me and hear me. Not even my superhero parents could take away cancer. But they could sit next to me when I was hurting and listen when I cried, and that was all the comfort I needed.
"But we don't need to talk about that because your situation is so much worse."
When I ask my friends how they're doing, a lot of them won't get into the details of their own struggles because they see what I've gone through/am going through and feel like their problems are trivial in comparison. For the most part, they are probably right. I wished my biggest problem was that my phone was stolen, or my boyfriend blew me off again. But I found the only thing harder than not telling my friends to stop whining was not even knowing that was going on in their lives. It crushed me to find out that something had happened in their lives and they didn't tell me about it because of what I was going through. I felt even more disconnected. Normal moments are what fuel cancer patients and normal for me was being a good friend. Check your timing, consider if it's really something worth complaining about to anyone in general, and then give your friend the chance to be a friend.
"You're done with treatments! Hooray! Now you can put it all behind you and get back to normal."
Survivorship is the least talked about step in the fight against cancer. I'm not sure if this is because you can begin to return to a life that was like the one you had prior to diagnosis or because it is always portrayed with victorious, celebratory photos. In my own experience, I've found that it has been the hardest. The woman inside of the body celebrating at the finish line is scared, confused, exhausted, aimless, thankful, and in need of love, support, and answers. Who I was before diagnosis is completely different than who I am today. My interests, hopes, and dreams all changed along with my priorities, stressors, and fears. Tumors may disappear but their effects can linger on. Post-treatment can be an incredibly fragile time and it's important to be sensitive to this. Adjustments and transitional times of any kind can be really hard. Continue to be supportive and check in when you can.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for a cancer patient is to just be there. Listen. Put aside your own discomfort and sit in those hard moments with someone. You can't take away cancer, you can't cause a certain outcome, and you can't control this. The sooner you give up the impossible role of being able to fix things, the sooner you can help.
Kayla Redig is passionate about helping others through their cancer journey. She writes about her experience as a young adult with cancer on her blog Love Conquers All. Follow her on Twitter @iamnotmycancer.