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?