How to Know a Cancer Patient

I was really struggling with a topic to blog about this month. Nothing new is happening with my treatment and diagnosis until January, and the holiday season finds me pretty stressed out and terribly busy. But, I was reading a magazine article the other day about social ettiquette during holiday parties and get-togethers. One of the “tips” given was to not bring up someone’s illness or injury unless they do. This got me thinking that perhaps it might be nice if there were actually a guide or written “rules” about associating with, talking to, and relating to cancer patients. I hope that the need to actually use my advice will be infrequent, but as prevelant as cancer is, I have a feeling my thoughts might come in handy. Plus, if you’re reading this blog, you probably at least know ME.

So here it is……..Kay’s Brutally Honest and Slightly Sarcastic Guide to Knowing Someone with Cancer.

1) Don’t avoid or ignore …………..It’s amazing how many people tend to disappear from your life after diagnosis. I understand that some people do not deal well with illness and trauma, but it’s rather inevitable at some point. If you run and hide from people in difficult and scary situations, you are going to wind up very lonely. If you don’t know what to say, TELL the person this. They are more likely to understand that than you suddenly turning into Harry Houdini.

2) Don’t blame and finger point……….. “Did you ___________ ?” (insert carcinogenic behavior……smoke, sunbathe, not eat enough broccoli, etc.) I’m sorry to break it to you, but cancer strikes old and young, healthy and sick, fat and thin, male and female, smokers and non-smokers, vegetarians and meat lovers. You get the picture. Even if our behavior did somehow cause the cancer, the last thing we need is to be sent on a guilt trip or scolded. Besides, the only reason you want to think it’s our fault, is so that you can reassure yourself that the same fate won’t befall you, right?

3) Don’t become a doctor……….While we are usually open to people who ASK if we want an interesting article about a new drug, information about living the macrobiotic lifestyle, or the phone number of the guy in Germany who cures cancer by putting you into hypothermia, don’t make assumptions and send unsolicited advice and information. I know you’re just trying to help, but our teams of medical professionals have it under control.

4) Don’t whine………Our tolerance for tales of broken down cars, cancelled hair appointments, incompetent co-workers, and failed DVR recordings becomes a little lower. It’s not that we don’t want to hear about your life or your problems, but keep it in perspective. We can still sympathize as these problems don’t disappear from our lives just because of a cancer diagnosis, but save the drama.

5) Don’t exclude……….Until we take our last breath, we are living with, not dying of, cancer. Key word there is living. We still like to go to movies, out to eat, travel, shop, read, etc. Sure there may be times when treatments and side effects keep us from participating in these things, but it’s always better to ask than assume.

6) Never use any of the following phrases:

“Everything is going to be okay.” Unless you have the letters MD after your name or you can guarantee it, don’t say it.

“Stay positive!” This is simply overused and we grow to resent it. Sure, attitude matters, but if there is anything in life that should earn you the occasional breakdown, cry session, self pity-party………’s cancer!

“If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask.” We won’t ask. Asking for help is hard. It’s always better to just do it than to ask. Now, I’m not suggesting that you break into our houses and clean them. Well………..actually?………………, probably not a good idea. There is nothing wrong with calling someone and saying, “Hey, I know you have treatment on Friday and I want to bring dinner for your family, what time works best?” This leaves us the option to flat out refuse, but, we probably won’t!

“I knew someone who had what you have, but they died.” Really? Do I need to explain this one? All I can say is that we’re just a tiny bit more sensitive to tales of pain, suffering, and death.

“Any one of us could die any day. I could leave here and get hit by a bus!” This is my least favorite. Cancer does not give us sudden immunity to getting hit by a bus, having a heart attack, falling off a cliff, attacks by vicious animals, etc. So, at the end of the day, we are still worse off.

7) Take cues from individuals……….Last but not least, we’re all different. Some patients like to talk about their disease, some don’t. Some of us like to show off our scars, some don’t. Follow our lead!

Also, know that we can and will forgive an occasional slip up. We know that no one is perfect. So if you find yourself with your foot in your mouth while talking to a friend or loved one with cancer, don’t beat yourself up. In fact, your slip may give us something to laugh about, a funny story to tell, or even a great topic for a blog!

Wishing you all a Happy Holiday Season!

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One Response to How to Know a Cancer Patient

  1. Liz R. says:

    I love all of your posts, even those that make me cry. This one is awesome! I thought it was funny and articulate. Thanks for the comments. and advice. Most of us are not living in stage 4, we can only imagine what you and your family are going through. But, we can hurt for you. As I told you, I made copies of this post and gave them to the nurses I work with. All, as well myself, laughed, said “have I said that”? But, most of all we loved your candor, humor and directness. Thanks for your posts! Of course, my family and my Denver Health family is in your corner!

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