I’m remarkably grateful to be in remission with her; but uncertain how as a former athlete I succumbed to a smoker’s cancer diagnosis on my actual birthday. Or, far worse, how my mom was hit with a rare stage IV breast cancer called Inflammatory Breast Cancer. I would take her illness on if that were ever an option in my regular fantasy where Hollywood or some omnipotent entity granted me the power to switch maladies.
Being in this unenvied position, I’ve learned that the only thing worse than your own pain is helplessly watching a loved one suffer. The first being mostly physical; the latter crushingly emotional. Yet it does not stop me from trying to will health or strength upon her.
A major stressor faced by many people in their lifetime is a cancer diagnosis. Sadly, cancer patients too commonly cite instances of people they know who never communicated emotional support regarding their illness. While studies show that people do better emotionally in a crisis when they have strong support from family members and friends. However, if one of your friends or loved ones has been diagnosed with cancer you might not know what to say or do to help.
According to a recent study by Katharine J. Head of the Department of Communication Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University “Although adult cancer survivors and their families face unique psychosocial and health-related challenges related to cancer, little is known about how the illness experience of cancer may positively transform their mental, physical, and social well-being following primary treatment.”
Cancer has a way of quickly re-prioritizing life, while teaching a valuable lesson in perspective not otherwise gleaned.
My cancer diagnosis served as the perfect opportunity to “clean house” regarding friends, work, and how I spent my time. Suddenly, I was face-to-face with the regret of how I had been spending my life thus far, and with whom. I quickly removed shallow friends, a girlfriend who drank too much, and even a few family members from my sphere of influence. And, I never looked back.
Actions to support someone recently diagnosed with cancer:
1. Listen and give advice only when asked.
We all want to ease the pain of those we care about. But, dispensing unsolicited advice is one of the worst things to do to those newly diagnosed with cancer. One of the best things you can do, however, is to offer the gift of listening with empathy. Exclaiming to someone that frankincense, CBD, or turmeric can cure their cancer deserves a punch to the larynx. Just don’t.
2. Support their cancer treatment decision.
We cannot impose our will on others, even in instances of record-level relevancy or as a shared decision-maker. The choice rests with the patient. And, if your loved one asks you to contact medical providers, be sure you have written consent. Privacy laws prohibit health professionals from speaking to relatives – including parents or adult children – without the patient’s permission. As I’ve learned firsthand, you can’t ‘parent your parents.’
3. Be present.
Even in silence, the mere presence of someone we care for during a difficult time has immediate and lasting benefits. Sit with your loved one during treatment or have lunch with them afterward. Even better if it falls within the oncologist’s dietary recommendations. Your loved one may love sugar – but so do cancer cells.
4. Learn about the cancer and specific treatment plan.
Cancer Care and other reputable organizations offer educational information and websites regarding cancer, respective treatments, and side effects. Be cautious of your sources or how much you read, however. It’s common to get overwhelmed and frantic – especially regarding prognosis percentages that are overgeneralized and unspecific to your loved one’s case. Internet research is an activity best kept in moderation.
5. Consider the caregiver.
Caregiver burnout and fatigue is a real thing. No matter the relation, this is an often-overlooked premise. Cancer caregivers take on many tasks, often including those formerly held by the recently diagnosed. The caregiver needs care too. Sometimes you need to call on backup in the form of additional family or friends. You can review and receive help at Cancer Caregivers, caregiver resources at the American Cancer Society, or from the National Cancer Institute caregiver support page.
6. Be steadfast.
Those with cancer often experience a discernible drop-off in support from friends and family after the initial diagnosis. Cancer is a long-term disease followed by a longer remission period. It requires more from supporters than a gratuitous slap on the back and “You’ll kick this, buddy!” flaccid approach. This ain’t the Flu. Prepare accordingly.
7. Keep the status quo.
For many people, being able to maintain life pre-cancer diagnosis can boost their sense of mastery over the illness and lessen the life-impact of the disease. Cancer is a silent narcissist best kept small.
8. Don’t be detached if you are long-distance.
Never underestimate the emotional support that comes from regular phone calls or texts. Since you might be too far to prepare food and bring it yourself, perhaps arrange to have meals delivered from a local restaurant or reputable and healthy meal service like Freshly or Hello Fresh. Or, consider ordering groceries online from a local supermarket that delivers. Use vacation time or a holiday weekend and visit with the ill person doing something enjoyable. For them.
9. If you have the means, offer financial assistance.
Cancer can strain finances to the point of financial ruin, and many people are too proud or ashamed to ask for monetary assistance. If you think it’s needed and are able to offer, raise the subject respectfully. Cancer is a selfish money pit. The Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition, Cancer Care, or the resources page via the American Cancer Society can also be of considerable help.
I don’t care who you call your higher-power, this is the time to send some knee-mails. I regularly lean on prayer, daily gratitude’s, and striving to stay rooted in the moment. Helpful tactics I would not have learned sans cancer.
There is no education like struggle. Suffering is a conduit to empathy and awareness. Adversity yields purpose and refinement in life that can only come from life trials.
There is always an upside or takeaway to every hardship, though it often takes time and distance to source it. In my instance, I am much closer to my parents through our shared experience caring for mom. Adversity also gave me the incentive to leave a dead-end job and relegate my only toxic sibling to the “acquaintance” pool. Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge.
Hug your family and your hardships. They’re trying to tell you something.