When I was 27 years old, I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive, non-hormonal type of breast cancer: Triple Negative. As I had to come to terms with this life-changing diagnosis and go through all the treatment motions (surgery, chemo & radiation), I was surprised at how much energy I was spending on navigating the social waters. You could say I was getting a degree in psychology because I dealt with all types of people. Some gave me support, inspiration, and love, while others frustrated, triggered, or hurt me. And 99.9% of the time, the latter group just didn’t know how to handle my situation. They didn’t have bad intentions, but just a horrible way of showing they cared.
So, here are some tips to help you communicate with someone with cancer, making everyone feel comfortable (including you!).
- ASK how you can help.
Here’s the thing, I didn’t make it easy on people, because I wanted attention from some and space from others. I didn’t want to feel like a patient or a victim, but I also didn’t want my situation to be disregarded altogether.
So, how do you know how to interact with someone with cancer? It’s so simple. Just ask questions. How can I help? What can I do to make you feel better? Do you want to talk about it or do you need a distraction? And then you act accordingly. By asking, you show consideration & respect. Because assuming what someone wants is often a projection of your fears, discomfort, or conditioning. And every person deals with their illness differently.
- Show up
This may seem like an obvious one, but many people cannot handle seeing a loved one with cancer. Due to their own past traumas or simply due to a lack of emotional stamina, they disappear. While I understood the motives of all the ghosts in my life, it really hurt me when they left. No one should have to deal with that on top of everything else.
So, if you tend to ghost, don’t. Step up and put your ego aside, because it’s not about you, and if you do leave, you will have to deal with your own guilt.
Instead, be there for your loved one and go seek help if you feel triggered. This is a beautiful opportunity to heal yourself and grow. And if you cannot help it, explain why you need space and are not able to be there for them. Don’t let them wonder why they weren’t good enough for you to care.
Even if you cannot bear to see them like that, sending a heart emoji or one line over a text takes zero effort and still helps.
- Don’t make it about you.
People tend to make everything about them. My situation scared them and so my illness became about them. I’ve spent countless times comforting others as they seemed to be more triggered about my situation than I was. Which in retrospect is crazy! Also, be a bit mindful about what you say in front of someone with cancer. If you aren’t sure if it will come across as insensitive or tone deaf, just don’t say it.
- Use humor
Laughter is the best medicine. Make someone laugh to make a dire situation better. It does wonders. When a loved one with cancer makes a self-deprecating joke, no matter how harsh, just laugh. That’s all you got to do. But don’t feel like that means you too can make fun of them. That’s not how this works. It’s like how you can make fun of a family member, but if someone else does it, they better watch out.
- Show you care
Whether by sending flowers or shooting a text, show someone you are thinking of them. Check in on your loved ones. Do call ahead if you plan to make a home visit. You don’t have to go overboard, but a small gesture goes a long way.
- Treat them normally
So, this one may sound contradicting to all I’ve said before, but it isn’t. My friends and family were supportive, loving, and considerate, but they treated me like me. To them, I wasn’t a patient, no matter how bald and eyebrowless I was. They didn’t look at me any differently and proved that I was not defined by my sickness. When people go through treatments for almost a year or even years, they don’t always want to be reminded of their situation and rather be distracted. Don’t tiptoe around them, they’re still them.
Hopefully, these 6 tips will make it easier for everyone. Remember, we all say or do the wrong thing sometimes. It’s going to happen. We’re all human. Just be intentional with your words and behavior and always act out of love.
And if a person is in pain and takes it out on you, despite your support, don’t take it personally and hug them a little longer.
P.S The fact that you are reading this, tells me your heart is in the right place and you will do just fine.
You got this!
Author of Positively Triple Negative — fighting my tumor with a dose of humor.