It’s breast cancer awareness month, and I’m a breast cancer survivor.

Two of my in-laws were recently diagnosed with cancer last month. One has leukemia.The other has lung cancer.

Confronting these things stirs up a potent mix of feelings. Gratitude for my present state of health and well-being. An uncomfortable sense of vulnerability. A tender empathy for anyone undergoing the shock of a cancer diagnosis and facing the difficult months and years of treatment and recovery.

These stirrings have reminded me of how those around me made a difference as I underwent diagnosis and treatment.

Things That Helped Me

Here are some of the things others did that helped so much, perhaps far more than they realize.

  • A hug from the radiology technician before my biopsy.

  • Getting funny cartoons, videos and photos from my friends.

  • Receiving cards sent by so many friends and acquaintances.

  • Getting a ride to a post-surgery check-up.

  • Hearing the words, “You are not alone. I am here for you.”

  • Respecting my wish to plan phone calls so that I could handle them without being overwhelmed.

  • Getting together for lunch when I felt well enough.

What makes it hard to know what to do or say?

Fear. Each one of us probably carries some fear of getting cancer ourselves. When someone we know has cancer, that fear is heightened and can cause us to fumble for words, or to want to avoid the person. We may also fear loss. What if this person, who we care for so much, doesn’t survive?

Worry.  Worrying that we’ll say or do something to make things worse might make us avoid contact with a friend or relative with cancer. What if we blurt out the wrong thing?

Powerlessness. Confronted by another’s major misfortune, we may feel powerless. What could we possibly do or say that could make things better?

Overcoming fear, worry and powerlessness.

Here’s how to be there for someone with cancer.

Bring your own feelings into awareness. Are you feeling fear, sorrow, worry or overwhelm? Express those feelings honestly to a trusted relative or friend, or write about them openly and deeply in your journal. Accept your feelings with compassion.These  feelings are very human and you are entitled to them. Taking time to process them will let you focus on being responsive to the person who is ill when you are with them.

Hold your intentions in mind. Think about how you want to be, and what you want to achieve. Maybe you want the other person to know that they are deeply loved. Perhaps you want to make the other person feel safe in telling you what they want to talk about or ask of you. Think about what helps you feel loved and safe enough to do be open about your wants and needs and offer that same comfort.

Ask how you can help. If they have specific requests, honor them. If the request is for something you can’t do, say, “That’s a valid thing to ask for, and I’m so sorry I’m unable to ______________.   If it’s something you can do, follow through and actually do it!

Recognize that asking for help can be hard. Our mainstream culture tells us that cancer patients should be kick-ass fighters, rewarding those who present themselves as if nothing is wrong.  Our cultural value on independence can make it tough to ask for help, even when it’s desperately needed. And in the midst of a chaotic, disruptive experience, a person might not know what help they need! Here are examples of things you can offer to do:

  • Do an errand

  • Go with them to a medical appointment

  • Prepare a meal

  • Help with child or pet care

  • Check in with them by email or phone

  • Take a walk together

You make a measurable, positive difference.

I can’t imagine how I would have coped without the friends, family and even strangers who rallied around me when I had cancer, offering all sorts of help in many different ways.

Feeling surrounded by these protective and uplifting acts of human kindness helped me cope with something that would otherwise have been unmanageable.

No one expects you to fix all the problems they face when they have cancer, or to know exactly what to say and do. Even when a fix isn’t possible, and even if at times you stumble and say or do the wrong thing, your presence and your emotional and practical support are powerful. They make a measurable, positive and much-needed difference. 

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Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

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