Cancer is a tricky subject to deal with, no matter if you're the patient or if your loved one is dealing with a diagnosis.
When my father was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer, it shattered my world. I had no idea who to turn to, what to say, or how to tell my father that he had cancer. I met “friends” who assumed that since it was my father who had cancer, it wouldn't affect me.
It felt like time had stopped and I was stuck, and in my mind the only question that ran around was “how?” I had isolated myself from the outside world and decided to only be there for my father.
It was a combination of shock and anger that ran through me. I didn't have much time to deal with my emotions as I dealt with the paperwork and staying with him at night at the hospital so he didn't lonely. There came a point where I had forgotten how life could possibly move forward.
Cancer not only affects the person that has it, but everyone in their immediate circle. Not everyone can understand what a cancer diagnosis can mean to the patient or their family.
That’s why it's important that you have an idea about what you should or shouldn’t say to someone with cancer.
When Someone Tells You They Have Cancer
When my father discovered he had cancer, it was after my mother and I had gotten the news, and it was devastating for both of us. My father was informed about his cancer by a trained medical professional that specialized in pain management at the hospital. I imagine if that much care was taken to inform him of his condition, there must be a way to talk to someone that has cancer because that was only the beginning of a long battle.
It is important to keep in mind that the person that you knew before is not the same person that you may be talking to now. My father was active before his cancer treatment and never shed a tear, so to see that same person lay in bed all day and be anxious was new to me.
I had to be his pillar when he was usually my pillar and support. My father didn't really talk about how he felt, but after his cancer treatment, he likes it if I'm sitting next to him while I’m working. It is important to keep in mind that cancer caregivers also change after they have to take care of a cancer patient. The only person I reached out to was my aunt, who is also a breast cancer survivor, so I could understand how to process the feelings that I was feeling in the moment.
How to Support Someone with a Cancer Diagnosis
Here are 5 ways you could help someone who might have just discovered they have cancer:
1. Listen to the person with the cancer diagnosis
Make sure you listen. When a person discovers they have cancer, it's like their life has shattered around them. People all have different coping mechanisms in dealing with stressful situations.
For my father, it was to talk it out, so he likes it when someone listens to him actively and asks him how he's feeling. It's important to understand that you won't be able to totally get what that person may be going through. Even though I am a cancer caregiver for my father, I can only see what he goes through, and never experience it myself.
2. Create a safe space for them to express their feelings
Sometimes a person may not be able to express how they feel because they may not feel safe. Make sure you can provide them with the confidence to express their feelings, fears, creating a place for them to vent. Questions like “How are you feeling?”, “How are you doing?” makes a huge difference.
My father is an introvert and doesn't like to talk about his treatment or hows he's feeling as he feels people stop talking to him when he talks about it, so he chooses to talk to my mother, me, or a selected few people.
It's important that you don't keep calling a person to talk to them. When they feel ok, they’ll return your call. It might be a good idea to ask the patient who their point of contact is when you want to ask about their well-being.
For example, I am the designated person to talk if people want to know how my father is doing. When my father’s friends or colleagues do want to know how he is, they can call me to ask and speak with him if he's up to it. While some people have ghosted him because they think he's being rude, the people who understand don't mind that I answer and just ask me how he is doing.
3. Be mindful not to project your own fears or beliefs about cancer
It's important that you keep your beliefs and fears to yourself, since cancer patients are already overwhelmed and stressed. I remember someone in my father's immediate circle told my father to not hold too much hope about the treatment, and that since it was the last stage there, isn't much hope to start with.I remember my father was upset and sad the whole day and decided not to talk to anyone after that.
Try to give a person hope, it helps them fight this battle. Every day is not the same. One day they might be happy and chatty, the next they might be upset or depressed. Giving them hope helps them look forward to every day.
Try not to tell them what you read about online or what happened to someone else when they were diagnosed with cancer. Stay positive and keep your own fears and beliefs on the back burner, you’ll be surprised by how much you learn by just keeping an open mind.
4. Ask permission before sharing advice
Any type of advice can be tricky. As a cancer caregiver, I prefer not to give advice to other cancer caregivers unless I know the type of cancer they're dealing with, and even then I only share if I have concrete advice that will actually help the person.
Try to offer support and advice if you think it will actually help the patient. For example, my father had been complaining that he didn't like the taste of water, but he was dehydrated, so someone in his close circle suggested another drink. The way he said it was “I’m not sure if this would work, so ask your GP before you try it.” That person acknowledged the fact that not everything works for a cancer patient and made sure that he was giving the correct advice.
5. Mindfully offer support
Every day is a different challenge with cancer. One day they may feel that they're okay and the next they feel like they don't want to get out of their bed. Therefore, it's important to remember that when you want to offer support, it might not always be taken in a good way.
It could be that one day they agreed to go out for a walk with you and another day they may cancel at the last minute. It's important to understand that cancer has a mind of its own and can make your life miserable. There are days when my father can sit up from his bed, go to the living room and interact with people, but then there are days when he has some excruciating pain that forces him to stay in bed. So, always be mindful when you want to offer support.
Examples of Supportive Responses to Someone with a Cancer Diagnosis:
- “You’re not alone, I’m here if you need me”
- “You are brave, you’ll fight this” (this is the statement I choose to use when my father feels hopeless)
- Talk about a topic of their interest “oh did you read about xyz”, it helps divert their mind and lets them not think about cancer all the time.
- “Never give up, I’m right here”
- “I’m a phone call away, just call me”
- “Why don't you send me the list of things you need, I’m free”
Thoughtful Gestures to Support Someone with Cancer
A thoughtful gift can also be a good gesture for a cancer patient. You could do a little research on what the cancer patient may need at the time and can bring it to them.
For example, my father was not able to concentrate on any TV show because of “Chemo brain” so I got him a Netflix subscription so he can watch his TV shows at his leisure and doesn't have to feel like he was being left out of a conversation.