Being diagnosed with cancer is a scary experience. Even though many people develop cancer in their lifetime, it doesn’t make it any easier when you or someone you love is diagnosed for the first time.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a definitive “right way” to support your loved ones through such a traumatic and difficult time, and everyone will respond to their diagnosis differently. That said, here’s what one cancer patient wishes her support system knew before she was diagnosed.
Don’t assume one cancer experience is like another
When Kelsey Litwin first found out she had breast cancer, she discovered that on paper, her diagnosis was exactly the same as her mother’s, who is a 23-year breast cancer survivor who was treated at the same hospital she would be treated at.
However, Litwin’s medical oncologist made it crystal clear that despite the parallels of her cancer to her mother’s, this experience was no one else’s.
Litwin says that even though turning to familiar experiences, such as the stories of family members or acquaintances, may seem intuitive when faced with something unfamiliar and scary, the comparisons may do more damage than good. Some people may be able to work through their treatment, while others may suffer from intense side effects that prevent them from engaging in their everyday activities.
When someone with cancer is in the midst of fighting off the disease, talking about positive cancer stories of those who were able to survive and thrive may not be as comforting as you believe them to be.
Asking for help is hard, accepting offers is easier
One of the phrases that Litwin often heard from friends and family was “let me know what I can do!”
While this is well-intentioned, and likely coming from a genuine desire to give support, it is actually very difficult for people to articulate their needs, especially if they have spent their lives cultivating a sense of independence.
Instead, try to think of specific ways you can offer your support. Offer rides to and from appointments or drop off food when your loved one may be too weak to cook or drive themselves. Another tangible way you can help is to take care of daily errands like laundry or groceries.
If you want to support but are strained for time, you can give gift certificates to their favorite local restaurant with a delivery service.
Let them choose what to celebrate
Not knowing what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer is understandable—just like not knowing the right thing to say when confronted with someone who is grieving. Here are some phrases that should be avoided:
“But that’s a good type of cancer.”
“You’ll beat it and be back to normal in no time.”
“You’re so brave. I could never do what you’re doing.”
“At least you get a free boob job/don’t have to worry about getting pregnant/look good bald.”
These comments at face value may seem positive and supportive but end up undermining someone’s suffering and experience.
Rather than fishing for silver linings, pay attention to the language that your loved one is using and follow their lead. Validate their feelings by celebrating whatever milestones they want to celebrate and commiserating with them when they are struggling. Don’t feel like you have to fix the problem. Sometimes, simply agreeing with them that what they’re going through sucks can go a long way.
Just because treatment is finished, doesn’t mean their cancer journey is over
Keep in mind that the effects of cancer treatment extend beyond the weekly blood tests and sessions. According to the American Cancer Society, around a quarter of cancer patients experience a decreased quality of life because of physical issues that are repercussions of their treatments.
Your loved one will still be coping with these side effects, even if they are no longer in the thick of it. Some may even be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, “Patients who are younger, female, less educated, and who have had previous trauma or a preexisting mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, might be at higher risk for PTSD.”
That said, not everyone will be open to seeking help, so make sure that you are there for your loved one as much as possible, and if they express interest, then support that interest and help them find resources or groups that suit their needs.