Even today, 26 years after experiencing what it feels like to be ‘that’ person, it’s can be hard for me to figure out what to say when someone else gets diagnosed with cancer.
I know that when I was going through it, there were so many – too many – people around me who let me down. It was only once I recovered from the throes of illness – getting through the shock of the diagnosis, the physical demands of chemo, the constant drain on my emotions for so many years to follow (definitely a form of PTSD) – that I was able to move beyond myself and realize that people were just as frightened and unsure as me. And that fright of saying the wrong thing, or facing their own mortality (one woman called me to express her concern, but rather than expressing her concern, said “Wow, we’re the same AGE…”), caused the great divide between me, the cancer patient, and them, the so-called comforter.
Not everyone knows how to comfort another person; to some, that precious gift comes naturally. They know just what to do and what to say; they seem to have a secret propensity for hitting that proverbial nail on the head and providing instant comfort. They soothe with the right words, open their arms to supply the perfect hug, cook up the perfect meal and deliver it exactly at the right time.
But others are ill-equipped to handle their own challenges, much less someone else’s. And their uncertainty and fear comes across with either silence, avoidance, the wrong words, or a combination of all three.
Knowing what to say to a friend with cancer is not something that comes naturally to most; but it definitely is a skill that can be practiced and learned by all. That’s why I wrote this article for the PBS website, Next Avenue. I’ve had countless people ask me what they should do; what they should say; how they can help when someone they know gets a cancer diagnosis. They’re scared, too, but they feel the pressure and perhaps the obligation or downright desire to do something to help.
Hopefully this advice will help you support someone else when you might be just as frightened and uncertain as they are.