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October 27, 2010

Instead of this, try...

This post is the third in a four part series in honor of National Breast Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I am collaborating with Dionna, who writes at Codename: Mama, and Sarah, who writes at Balancing Act and who authored What Not to Say. Cancer has touched the lives of all three of us:  I have recently been diagnosed with cancer, Sarah is a cancer survivor, and Dionna helped her grandmother live her last days peacefully at home after a battle with cancer. Chances are, cancer has touched your life or the life of someone you love, too. It is our hope that this series of posts will be a help and a comfort to you.

I hope you had a chance to visit Dionna's site on Monday and  Sarah's site yesterday for her thoughts on how to talk to young children about cancer.  Please come back to Code Name: Mama on Thursday for an interview with the Executive Director of Cleaning for a Reason, a non-profit dedicated to helping women undergoing cancer treatments.


Three weeks ago, we seemed like a normal family.  Despite the fact that we had just moved across the country and that my husband was deployed to the Middle East for a year, everything was going swimmingly. Then one afternoon, two days after having a biopsy for a suspicious lump in my breast (found upon self-examination), my world turned upside down.  The words I never, ever thought I would hear hurtled over the phone lines to me:  "I'm sorry, but you have breast cancer."  I was stunned beyond belief and am still trying to come to terms with how our lives have been irrevocably altered.

I have also quickly learned how different it is to be on the other end of the spectrum of news sharing.  I have dealt with the illnesses and deaths of friends and family members, and until now always assumed I had the perfect or at least acceptable phrases for the occasion.  It wasn't until my recent diagnosis that I realized just how even the wording of one's reaction to the news that your friend or relative has cancer can affect them. 

The most natural answer may seem to be the best.  However, until you are in that person's exact situation, it is very hard to gauge how things will affect her.  While I have not had to deal with all of these comments personally, I know these are many of the first things that used to pop in my head when I heard about a new diagnosis.  Now that I am living through this scenario, I have realized there might be better options, having learned by those who have comforted me.

1.  Instead of this: It’s only a breast.

No, it's not.  It is a part of my body.  Whether I have always liked its size or shape, it has been much appreciated.  Yes, it may be a sexual object, but I also used it to nurture and feed my three children.  I am still nursing my youngest (he is 2.5) so it has not outlived its usefulness in the slightest.  I really cringe at the notion that I should suddenly want to toss away a part of my body that I have always enjoyed having.  It is a loss and I do need to mourn it.

Try:  I'm really sorry.  I can't imagine how you must feel right now.

The above is an open, honest answer.  I don't expect you to know how devastated I am, but appreciate the non-judgmental concern.

2.  Instead of this:  You must be really overwhelmed.  Please let me know what I can do to help.

There is nothing wrong with this statement at all, unless you happen to run into a stubborn, self-assured future cancer treatment patient who still thinks she can do it all herself.  I have quickly learned that I can't.  Just having a doctor's appointment in the morning can wear me out for the day, especially since life goes on in every other respect.

Try (no, DO):  I am bringing you chicken noodle soup, and I will include salad and a dessert.  I just need to verify you prefer that over stew and there are no allergy concerns.  How does Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. work for a drop-off?

I had plenty of offers for help, but didn't realize at first how much I needed them.  Then one friend very kindly insisted she was bringing us dinner THAT DAY.  She easily saved us two nights of cooking.  I have since come around and realize that it's okay to ask for assistance in a time such as this one.

3.  Rather than:  In a few years, you will forget this ever happened!

I will never forget this time period.  Due to the nature of my husband's career in the U.S. Foreign Service, this has irrevocably changed much for us for at least the next two years.   I am having trouble imagining making it through all of my appointments this week, and next year is completely out of the picture.

Try:  Take it minute by minute.  Don't try to imagine the future, congratulate yourself for taking each day as it comes.

"Take it minute by minute" is a piece of invaluable advice given to me by a friend who has dealt with something similar.  Given all of the decisions we have to make, trying to envision beyond next week is simply too difficult.

4.  Instead of:  If I were you, I would do x, y and z!  Why are you nervous?

I certainly understand this line of reasoning.  What person does not want to be strong for their friend, offer him or her the best possible advice and prove to them how easy it is to be firm in one's conviction?  The only problem is that with cancer, it is very hard to know the "right thing" to do, when there are so many conflicting (and, yes, sometimes scary) sources of information.  Even the best doctors may differ slightly in their opinion, just enough to worry a new patient. 

Try this:  Just listen.

Don't feel you have to have all of the answers or even any of them.  If you really ache to be supportive, but can't find the right words, say so. Offer that if you friend needs an ear, you can't tell them what to do, but are more than happy to be an outlet for venting.  Sometimes just getting a huge amount off one's chest with nothing more than a "that must be hard" in return is a huge relief.

5.  Instead of thisI wanted to call, but couldn't think of anything to say.

No one really knows what to say.  Even this advice here may not be on target for everyone.  Every person is different and giving your best shot is all you can do.

Try this:  I wasn't sure what to say, but wanted to call and let you know I am thinking of you.   By the way, did you hear the news about...?

I am not advocating gossip.  However, if your friend has missed work or recreational events, she may not be caught up on fun news.  The bonus?  It's a distraction for her. She may even continue to angle the conversation away from her health as she knows that life goes on and would really like to know what's going on in your world.

It’s always a tough call with illness, especially cancer.  Who wants to say the wrong thing and end up offending the person one is trying to help?  In the end, remember your friend simply needs support, and the important part is trying.  It is the effort that will be remembered years later and that is what matters.



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Thanks for the great advice. You're right - no one really knows what to say. So it helps to have some pointers. Kudos to the friend who showed up with dinner for you. I remember when I medevaced for a month, a whole group of neighbors started a food brigade for my husband and kids, and it was such a relief to me to know they were being taken care of so I could focus on me.

Wonderful advice- thank you for writing this.

And, erm, any allergies or food intolerances / preferences? Let me know!

This is a wonderful list. Thank you for taking the time to put it together.

Great post! Thank you for putting it together!

This was great Jen.

Thanks, that is really helpful. You are so wonderful for taking the time to help those who are trying to help you and others. You are amazing!

This is fabulous advice and not just applicable to cancer either. I went through a cycle of IVF this summer, and a friend is going through a the devastation of a failed cycle of IVF right now. Any of these nuggets of advice would help with supporting a friend through IVF, or any other devastating time. Thank you and good luck with your treatments and recovery.

I think sometimes just a hug and a smile are the very best things to do for someone who is scared and hurting!!! I am Dionna's Mom...it was my Mother that she helped during the final weeks of her fight with cancer. I longed for someone to just come up and put their arms around me and tell me that they loved me!!! I know I wasn't the one dealing with the cancer but my beloved Mother was...and I was so scared and felt so alone. I hope that you have people near you who are saying and doing all of the right things...sharing their love and concern with you and your children...and that your husband knows you are being supported and cared for during his absence.
I will be lifting you and your family in prayer

Great post. I have a relative who has cancer also and it is hard to know what to say - not only to her but also to her daughter who is the mother of my children's cousin (same age as my girls). I think both of her mother and of you often these days. ((hugs))

God bless you and your family. How brave and honest you are. Thank you.

Love, love, love this! I was a bad mis-user of number 2 until a couple of years ago when my friend Sarah (who's husband was going through cancer) point-blank told me that it would be so much more useful if I just gave her options of what I would do. Lesson learned and I've done it differently ever since. :)

In fact, the other day I was with a cancer patient who was telling me that she gets lonely when her husband was gone, so I immediately invited her over for dinner. I know in the past I would have said something vague instead and waited for her to initiate (for fear of intruding). Now I know differently.

What I can say with certainty is that like anything, learning what to say takes practice, but can indeed be improved with time. Thanks for a refresher course Jen!

Perfect! People mean well, they really do but sometimes they just need a little guidance. Heck, I've been through it and I still need to be reminded!

Thank you for this. I never really know what to do or say.

Thanks for this post Jen - it's really helpful for those of us who have never experienced a serious illness *personally*. I admit that I've been one of those people who have not called, because I didn't know what to say. But in the future, I'm definitely going to be a person who offers specific help!!

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