I have entirely too many friends with cancer. Some have treatable cancer, while others have stage IV cancer requiring constant palliative treatment. It is horrible and scary.
Now, I see a lot of articles describing cancer from the patient’s POV, and a few from the perspective of the spouse whose world is forever changed from their loss. What about the friend? What about the coworker, who really likes you, and wants to help?
I am one of those people who has spent entirely too much of my life saying exactly what pops into my head. Most of the time this is not a problem. Well, not too much anyway. The part of me who would never intentionally say something insensitive kicks in, and I become frozen. I don’t know what to say. Typically when I learn of your diagnosis, my first thought is Are you going to die?
I am a person who likes to have a problem or a puzzle to solve. Give me a task, and I will do everything in my power to help you out. I want to offer advice, but I do not know a lot about cancer and cancer treatment. It is not my specialty, and I do not like thinking about it. Cancer. That is a scary word. I have a new understanding of why the little old ladies whisper when they are gossiping about people who have cancer.
I wonder if other people feel as useless as I do when my friends or coworkers are going through this. I simply have very little to offer. Sure, I can be available if you need to talk, but wouldn’t someone who knows more about your situation be better? One of my friends made a poignant statement once, “Everybody loves you when you are dying.”
Yikes. I do not want my friend to think I am only there because they are sick. So, I don’t call. This leaves me feeling guilty. What are the rules? What can I do?
Some of the articles I have read have admonished well meaning friends not to ask “what can I do?” This person has had their entire life turned upside down, and they do not have time to find a task to feed your ego. Good point.
This leaves me with the same problem. I want to help. I would do anything if I could just make you not have to go through this, and I am powerless. I have seen my coworkers rally around our work family, raising money, and in general just being available. I find myself pulling back and suffering from intense insecurity. I do not want to interfere.
Even writing this makes me feel strange. My feelings should not matter, I am not the one with cancer. The thing is, I have feelings. I am sad, shocked, scared, and somewhat lost. If I have lost touch with you over the years, and I hear you have cancer, I want to reach out. However, then I am doing that annoying thing where people come out of the woodwork when there is a crisis. So, I just think about you, worry for you and your family, and reflect on the person I used to know. I stay silent.
There is no rule book for going through life. Now, we manage to stay connected to everyone we ever knew via social media. We are able to turn the world into that small town where everyone knows a little piece of everyone’s business. I wonder if this is part of why it seems like there is so much suffering in the world. We are exposed to more of it.
It is difficult to know how to offer support to someone who you know, but do not know well.
I remember people trying to comfort me when a very close friend died. They were using the common polite expressions. The one that infuriated me, “she is in a better place,” was not meant to upset me. I was infuriated. I wanted to scratch out their eyeballs. She was not in a better place, she was never coming back to the people who loved her.
Realizing the polite sayings can hurt, I am left with not knowing what to say. I want to ask so many questions. Are you scared? Is your family handling things well? Do you like and trust your doctor? What are you going to do? What are they telling you about the treatment? Are you in pain? How did you find out you have cancer? Did you suspect it was cancer before you went to the doctor? Did you miss the warning signs? Do you have a family history of cancer? Did you do something that caused your cancer? What are we going to blame this on? Why did this happen to you? SELFISHLY, is this going to happen to me?
My intentions would be to simply find out where you are. I want to understand, and in my naiveté, I truly believe if I understood, I could help. It is unfortunate that it is really none of my business.
So, I am left with nothing to say. Fear leaves me paralyzed. I do not want to get in the way. So, I will throw some cash into the collection jar, buy a plastic bracelet to prove my support, and wish I could help. No, it is not enough, but sometimes it is all I have.
Here is my promise to all my friends:
If you need me, I am here. I may not know what to do but, I will figure out something. I may not know the socially correct things to say, and I may accidentally make an inappropriate joke, but I will care. I will not assume to know what you need from me, and I will not do things unless you ask me for something. I will not call you constantly to check on you, but I will answer the phone if you reach out to me.
I guess the best thing I can offer is a willingness to be there for whatever need arises.
4 thoughts on “You have cancer. I don’t know what to say.”
This is such a good post. We all feel this way, I think.
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Thank you. I must admit I was a little afraid to post it- I did not want people to assume I was trying to minimize what they are going through. I have found I am affected by my own inadequacies with dealing with being a friend or acquaintance- and not knowing what to do.
It probably could fall under the same umbrella as secondary trauma for caregivers. I imagine we are all at risk to stress from other’s life events. It’s interesting how we are unable to speak candidly about our own fears.
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Poignant. If I may, I don’t see anything wrong in the questions you’d ask. Be yourself, that’s what I’d expect from a friend. Just one thing: get to know the phases of the grieving process and find out where your friend is. “How do you feel?” should be enough, then let your (obvious, reading you) cleverness do the rest. Much love, HC
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When it is a close friend or a patient, I am better able to judge the waters. My main issue is when I am trying to process if I can offer support to the people I know in a more casual way. I want to offer support, and genuinely seek to help, however I don’t want to be a crisis junkie. Thanks so much for your advice.
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