Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world, with over 600,000 people expected to succumb to the disease in 2017 the United States alone.
It is likely that you know of at least one (and likely several) people currently battling some form of cancer.
For those affected it can be very isolating and often times, we don’t know HOW to be there for them.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of having the right thing to say, but rather, knowing not to say the wrong thing.
Here’s what cancer sufferers wish you knew not to say…
Don’t say ‘Let me know if you need anything.’
Among the stressful physical toll that treatment takes on your body, and what’s called “chemo brain” (thinking and memory problems), dealing with cancer creates a fog of time and space.
The last thing a person needs is to be given another task, and coming up with their own suggestion of what you can do to help is just another burden. Instead, be specific: say, “I’m going to the pharmacy, can I fill any of your prescriptions?” or “Can I bring you dinner on Tuesday.”
Don’t say ‘You’re so brave.’
Telling a person with cancer that they are brave implies that they have a choice not to be. It can also give them a sense of guilt in the hours when they feel scared — like they’re somehow letting others down. Bravery is a choice. Cancer survival isn’t. When there is no other option, it’s better to hear, “I’m so proud of you” or “You’re so tough” because they are subjective assessments of a person’s strength.
Don’t suggest alternative treatments
Following any cancer diagnosis, friends and family often try one thing they think helps: suggesting alternative treatments, therapies, and diets they’ve read about to get them through their disease. As time goes by, the lemon water/sugar-free/raw food suggestions that they can “cure themselves” with will drive a cancer sufferer crazy.
The best thing you can remind somebody with cancer of is how their medical team has them covered, and that they’re getting the best care possible. Rest assured, if the alkaline diet was as good as the blogs claim, oncologists would be screaming it from the rooftops.
Don’t ask their prognosis
This one really only applies to new or infrequent visitors. Cancer patients get really sick of explaining “their story” to every new person who walks through their door. Sometimes, the thought of having to explain your cancer, your treatment, and recovery hopes is enough to turn new visitors away. Of course, you want to know somebody’s prognosis, so the best advice is to ask somebody close to them and get the information second-hand.
Don’t speak if you have nothing to say
When you speak just to fill the silence, you end up asking questions that only serve to aid you in your quest to understand mortality, and don’t help them. You don’t have to speak — just being there, at someone’s side, comfortable in silence, can mean everything.
It’s OK to admit that cancer sucks
The “positive attitude” schtick has its place in cancer treatment. So does being real. You don’t always have to provide somebody going through cancer with the bright side of things. You don’t have to make suggestions, or say “I’m sorry”. You don’t have to tell them they’ll come out the other side a better person. What really does help, sometimes, is just admitting that cancer sucks. It just does. Acknowledging their pain legitimizes their condition, and at the end of the day, that validation does help.
Cancer is scary. Knowing how to love someone with cancer doesn’t have to be. Listen before you speak, and never, absolutely never, assume you know what someone is going through. Just be there. Your presence is enough.
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