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Cancer makes some people uncomfortable

Getting cancer – or perhaps more accurately, living with cancer – has really de-mystified the disease for me, and stripped it of its psychological power. It’s no longer the boogeyman it once was.

Even so, I can tell it’s still the boogeyman for a couple of my friends, who seem uncomfortable with the fact I have cancer. I’m deducing this from the fact that they’ve completely avoided contact with me since I got diagnosed. I know they know I’ve got cancer, and they know I know they know.

The thing is, I think I know how they feel. They don’t know what to say, so rather than risk saying the wrong thing, they say nothing. And in order to say nothing, they have to avoid me.

I think I’ve been in that position myself. I can’t remember it specifically, but I feel so tuned into how I imagine they’re feeling that I think I must have experienced it myself.

Something I’ve learned from all this is that there really aren’t that many wrong things to say or do. I can’t speak for everybody with cancer obviously, but here are my tips for people who aren’t sure how to relate to friends with cancer. (This is probably transferable to other situations, such as other diseases or a death in the family.)

Things not to do

1. Don’t avoid the person.

2. Don’t avoid the subject.

3. Don’t feel you have to think of something profoundly meaningful to say.

4. Don’t feel you have to cheer the person up.

5. Don’t minimize the disease or the treatment.

6. Don’t talk about all the people you know who have died from your friend’s newly diagnosed disease.

7. Don’t try to sell her life insurance or a pre-paid funeral.

Things to do

1. Acknowledge the cancer and the fact that it sucks. This can be as simple as “I heard you have cancer. I’m so sorry.”

2. Let her know you care. You can do this explicitly with words, or implicitly with small gifts or cards or food or offers of help.

3. Generic offers of help are okay, but concrete offers are more useful. For example “Can I drive you to your appointment on Tuesday?” is better than “If there’s ever anything I can do…”

4. The hardest part is when the diagnosis is new and overwhelming and there are still so many looming unknowns in the equation. Gifts of distraction are especially helpful at this time: movies, books, wine, humour, escapist pursuits.

5. Remember she’s still the same person she used to be. Cancer is life-altering, but it doesn’t change everything. You can still talk about all the stuff you used to talk about.

6. If you really don’t know what to say, tell her you really don’t know what to say. It’s infinitely better than saying nothing.

7. If you’ve avoided her for too long already and you don’t know how to gracefully ease your way back into her life, just jump back in wherever you are, explain you didn’t know what to say (or whatever the case may be), and go forward. She’ll be good with that.

Did I miss anything?

25 comments to Cancer makes some people uncomfortable

  • Great post. I don’t think you left anything out.

    How is your back doing, by the way? Did you get it looked at?

  • Thanks Dr. Dawg. Funny you should ask about my back, because my first appointment with the neurosurgeon was scheduled for today. I expected to get an idea of whether he could help me and, if so, when. Unfortunately his office called this morning and rescheduled for next Wednesday morning, which is when I planned to be in the courthouse watching Mayor Larry’s conviction.

  • Damn. My advice? Take care of your back. There will be plenty of coverage in the press right after the verdict.

  • noam deguerre

    a mayor with ‘conviction’ – what next, the p.m. becomes ‘committed’? for such a loud-mouth, i’m one of those clam up around others’ tragedies or even negatory challenges – there is shame involved: is it moral cowardice, fear of a scene, or even of the base emotions ‘behind the scene’? “not knowing what to say”, these are ‘euphemisms we live by’ (well, sort of a near-life experience) everyone knows the chorus “i’m sorry for your troubles”…your words are sound, but will they translate for me the next time i am struck ‘dumb’ in the offensive sense of the term? here’s hoping!

  • XUP

    Just a footnote to the generic offers of help thing. People usually really want to help, but don’t always know what you (or anyone in that sort of situation) need. It’s often hard to guage how much or how little is needed or would be welcomed. So, even if people just throw a “please let me know if there’s anything I can do” out there, you could assume that it’s not just lip service, but that they really want to do something but are at a loss as to what to suggest. So, if there’s something you actually need from a particular person, why not ask them? They’d be thrilled, I’m sure. Having said that, I’m totally in awe of the people who instantly know exactly the right thing to bring or offer.

  • Gillian

    When are you going to write for a career?

  • J.

    I really like this post. I don’t know many people with cancer. It’s an unknown for me. I’m always nervous to say or do the wrong this. I’m so careful.

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Really great post, zoom. Super super helpful for people like me!! I’ve never been one of those magical folks who always knows the right thing to say or do when things are dire. But I also don’t want to act like a douche. Excellent tips!!

  • Deb

    Speaking of writing for a living…did you ever get the call back on the writing job?

    Maybe for those who want to help but don’t know what you need and if you are bad about asking; the solution is to appoint a “volunteer co-ordinator”. Someone that you can tell exactly what you need done and feel comfortable about it, and they can delegate.

  • grace

    I have a wonderful, warm LONG story to tell you about my wonderful and warm husband caring for his friend Mike as he died of brain cancer last year. A year Sunday and I can’t believe it . . .

    You are correct about the transferability to other situations: death, disability, miscarriage, mental illness, job loss, divorce. . .

    I’m fairly comfortable dealing with illness of body and mind, disability and even dying. Not because I’m ‘a magical folk’ who always knows the right thing to do or say. It’s simply because I was lucky enough to be born into a huge family of caregivers in a rural community; I saw the skills offered and practiced every day.

    It also made me see that all kinds of us have different things we can do to take care of each other: some of us cook really well, some of us fix things around the house, some have gentle hands, some tell really great jokes and some are quiet when quiet is what’s needed. We’re made to be able to care and to be taken care of. Otherwise we’d just be decorative ;0)

  • Oma

    XUP said (as she often does) exactly what I would have wanted to say. Just ask, PLEASE! I know people who always offer the right things … but I am not one of those great souls.

    I was far more afraid of the word and the disease before you and someone I also care about were diagnosed. My neighbour was just a good neighbour until she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She and I have become much closer since last summer … I think because she is so open about the whole thing. Claire is a quarter century older than you are, and lung cancer is an even scarier one than breast cancer …so I hope this won’t come across as a downer to you.

    I just heard from Claire’s husband that they have now discovered that she has three tumours on her brain. They are stopping the chemo for lung cancer and starting radiation for the brain tumours. I am so very sad for Claire … for both of them … Claire is no longer just a neighbour. She is a dear friend now … and I will miss her terribly when the inevitable occurs.

    At first I didn’t know what to do for Claire. She has a loving competent husband and a great garden. They didn’t need homemade goodies or flowers. Someone else was providing chocolate. But then I remembered that Claire had wanted to borrow films from me. So that’s what I began to do … I became their lending library. Even if no one was home when I called with a new movie, they knew I had been by thinking about them. And when Claire was feeling up to it she’d call or answer the door and we’d discuss the films … and what was happening with her.

    Claire … and you, Zoom … have given me a wonderful gift … you’ve shown me that cancer is just another disease … a bad one of course … and one I wish we could prevent or conquer … but I am now much more comfortable talking to people with cancer. I realize that they are still people, still my family and friends. And they still hold onto their hopes, dreams, strengths, interests, and sense of humour just as they always did. In fact, maybe they grow as a result of having come face to face with their disease.

    So please … tell us what we can do to help even if we are too obtuse to figure it out for ourselves.

  • This is a great post zoom. Thank you.

  • I think you’ve covered it, Zoomie. Good to remind us of the protocol. I must admit, I did a lot of the “do not” list thing a few years back.

  • Tom Sawyer

    Hmmm. So is this why comments on your blog have dropped off?

  • Dr. Dawg, oh yeah, absolutely, I took the appointment. I’d love to see the look on Larry’s face when the guilty verdict comes down…but even more, I’d love to be able to walk again. :)

    Noam, me too. I’m getting better with age, but it’s still hard and my first instinct tends to be one of avoidance. I recall having to go to a funeral one time and I said to the friend I was going with ‘I don’t know what to say to her,’ and he said ‘Just clasp her hand and say My Deepest Sympathies.’ And the thing was, this sounded okay when HE said it, but it didn’t sound like ME at all. My own voice didn’t have the right words for a funeral.

    XUP, yes, you’re right. I might end up going back to some of the people who made generic offers of help. In the beginning I couldn’t think of anything I needed, but once I start more intensive treatment, I expect I’ll have more intensive needs.

    Gillian, good question! I’ve decided to use some of this time between jobs and during treatment for writing. I’m just getting started now. Also, once I get back into the workforce, I’m hoping to find a writing job.

    J, thank you for your comment. I know it’s hard, especially when you’re young and haven’t had much experience with it yet. When in doubt, there’s nothing wrong with just telling the person how you feel – for example, “I want to say the right thing, but I don’t know what it is.” They’ll appreciate your honesty and the fact that you care. (These conversations, by the way, are often much easier for the person with cancer than the other person.)

    Roro, me too! I’m exactly like that. And weirdly enough, I found myself unexpectedly thrust into a situation just last night where I had to follow my own advice. I ran into someone I know whose partner had just died a few days ago. There was a brief instant where I didn’t know what to say and was tempted to say nothing, but then I remembered this blog post and said “I heard what happened, and I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” And it was okay – she was okay, the conversation was okay, I was okay! So now I can say I’ve tested my own advice and it works.

    Deb, they called back and said I was a strong finalist but I didn’t get the job. Still, I was pretty happy with the whole thing – first that my resume was good enough to get short-listed for a writing job, second that the interview went well (it was my first one in 18 years), and third that I didn’t get the job, since I really am not in a position to work right now.

    Grace, I love that comment. It makes so much sense, but I’d never really thought of it that way before (about having learned how to be in these situations because you’d seen those skills modeled throughout your childhood). And I like the idea of matching one’s skills to the needs, rather than acting like we’re all interchangeable. I’ll look forward to hearing your story about your husband and his friend.

    Oma, I’m sorry to hear about your friend’s condition worsening. But I’m happy you’ve found your way of helping her. Just like what Grace was saying!

    Thank you Olivia, I’m glad you like it.

    And thank you Chair. Same here. However, I think people will generally cut other people some slack if they like them and know their intentions are good.

    Tom, I don’t think so, because comments peaked when I got diagnosed. I think comments have dropped off because it’s summer. :)

  • Carmen

    Touché! I loved this post! And you are so right!

  • Wonderful advice. And hugs to you! (I hear hugs are always welcome.)

  • Nancy

    I think your advice is excellent, Zoom.
    Those are great lists, and I couldn’t think of a single thing to add. (Then I read some of the comments and thought, Ya, that’s good, too.)

    You’re such a wise & insightful little person.
    But then, I’ve always thought so.

    I don’t think these health issues have ”made you wise” — or even wise-er. (Sorry, Zoom, those are supposed to be quotation marks, but I still haven’t figured out where to find those darn puppies on this keyboard.)
    I think your cancer diagnosis and those wretched back pains have simply turned your clever and insightful mind in a new direction, to give you perspectives on a new area, to you at least. (Obviously some of your friends and correspondents have had experience in this area and they seem to be providing great support and advice.)

    So that’s it for me for now.
    I just wanted to say, Good job, Zoom!
    Once again.

    No wait, I would like to reiterate someone’s advice above, and that is to make sure that you don’t hesitate to ask for what you want or need. (I mean you personally there Zoom, but it also applies to others going through other kinds of crises or challenges.)
    Ask people to help you with things, with whatever tasks or chores or transport or food or gardening assistance that you need. The open-ended offers of help are undoubtedly genuine, and I know most folks would be thrilled to be of service to you in any small way. (But not me personally, Zoom, at least not at the moment. Sorry. I’ll call your Co-ordinator of Volunteers — what a great suggestion that was! — when I get back from CB and see what I can do for you then, OK? Hey, do you want me to bring you back some rocks? I’d be thrilled to do that!)

    Take care of yourself.
    And good luck on the 12th, both with your back appointment and for a successful conclusion to Mayor Larry’s trial.

  • Max R.

    Hey Zoom —

    Don’t worry, I’ll try to sneak a camera into the courtroom so I can film his expression as he hears guilty on all counts. I’ve been looking forward to this beautiful piece of justice for a long time! And I’m very happy about that. I just wish you could be there too!


  • Great post Zoom. Thank you! Your straightforward approach is refreshing and helps a person relax. We are so unskilled at dealing with what we judge to be “negative” in this culture. Maybe one solution is simply to give up judgment and embrace all that life serves up to us.

  • grace

    We have to think of some sort of way to celebrate next Wednesday. Hmmmmmmmmmmm. What kind of wine would you serve for a Day of Reckoning Dinner?

  • melinda

    Thanks for this post Zoom. It is difficult knowing what to say and it’s nice to have it straight from the perspective of someone with cancer. I also think your “rules” would work for most other crises as well.

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you for Wednesday.

  • Thank you Carmen!

    Toni! Hugs, of course, why didn’t I think of that?

    Thanks Nancy. I miss having you just on the other side of the cubicle wall. I don’t miss the cubicle, of course, but I do miss you. Yeah, please bring me rocks and other things from the beaches and forests! As for the Volunteer Coordinator, Duncan has applied for the job. He says everybody should send Zoom more tuna. He says one can never have enough tuna, especially during trying times. And catnip, lots and lots of catnip.

    Max, that would be excellent if you could capture the former mayor’s expression for me at the moment of conviction. Don’t get yourself in any trouble though. :)

    Cheryl, thank you. I’m enjoying your new blog by the way. Nice balance of life and knitting and food.

    Grace, I’m going to have so much to celebrate next Wednesday: the mayor’s conviction, (hopefully) news that the neurosurgeon can fix me (soon), and GC’s birthday! As for the day of reckoning, I’m not sure what the ex-mayor will be drinking…something made from sour grapes, no doubt?

    Thanks Melinda. I don’t like to think of them as rules, more as guidelines, but you’re right, they’re applicable to all kinds of crises.

  • Jill

    Thanks for writing this…very helpful.

    Dare I ask how you know about the 7th not to do item? Tell us that didn’t happen to you!

  • […] that post I wrote about cancer etiquette? Well. It seems I neglected to put something on the “Do Not Do” list. Something that […]