Even if you suspect something is off and your body is using every available method to let you know there’s a problem, hearing a cancer diagnosis cross your doctor’s lips registers as a 9.9 on the Emotional Richter Scale. No matter what the clinical prognosis, when people hear they have cancer—especially in those first minutes, hours, and days, the news can be positively earth shattering. “When I heard cancer, my first thought was death,” says Elizabeth Escalante, Language Access Services Program Coordinator for Capital Health, who was diagnosed with stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) in April 2013. “In that moment, I didn’t have access to that switch in my brain to make me think more logically and to realize that today there are many ways to overcome and cope with this disease. I just felt like my entire life and world collapsed in a matter of seconds.”
Many of us struggle to find the most compassionate and supportive way to be there for a friend or family member who is fighting cancer. When you’re looking to comfort someone who is facing a life-threatening illness, words tend to fall woefully short. Even with close friends who you know intimately, the right approach can be illusive no matter how good your intensions are because we ourselves are battling the fear and stress that comes with someone we love being forced to fight for his or her life.
But while you’re battling those emotions yourself, you can still be a source of comfort and strength. To help you accomplish that, we consulted cancer survivors and health care professionals who see and talk to cancer patients on a regular basis to find compassionate and loving approaches. While there is no one-size-fits-all method, this good advice will help you find what works for you and your friend or family member.
Sometimes silence is golden.
Escalante says when her doctor first delivered the news that she had breast cancer, at that moment, she didn’t want her loved ones to say anything. Despite our natural human instinct to find the right words in support of our friends or family members in crisis, comfort in the form of physical presence was what she needed most. “I just wanted them to stay next to me or to hold me or cry with me in silence…. I did not need words of comfort at that moment, just someone next to me, tofeel that I was not alone.”
Being at a loss for the right words in such an emotional, frightening moment is completely normal, but it’s important to recognize that, so you can avoid saying something unintentionally hurtful, says Trish Tatrai, RN, Clinical Manager Oncology Program/Breast Navigator at the Capital Health Center for Comprehensive Breast Care in Hopewell, N.J. “Everyone is different, but many people do not know what to say. If you’re unsure, it’s better to be just present for them,” she says. “If you want to say something, say you are going to be there for them and support them through the cancer journey to reassure your loved one that he or she will not be alone.”
Actions speak louder than words anyway
Kind, reassuring words can be meaningful, especially in the moment. But often times, your loved ones can feel your support even more directly through your actions, which not only lets them you know you’re thinking of them, but can also help make their lives a little easier.
Keep in mind, however, that while it’s wonderful to extend the offer to help, many patients do not know what they need, says Tatrai. Try to lend a hand in specific ways you know will be useful. “Offer to help with kids, give rides, make a meal, mow the lawn. Maybe pick up the kids from school and leave a note or card expressing your unconditional support,” she says. Those are gestures that your loved one can actually feel.
Remember it’s all about them
While it’s perfectly normal for you to feel pain and emotional stress while your friend or loved is fighting cancer, and it’s even ok to share that with them, but keep in mind that they should not be comforting you. “It is ok to hold them and cry with them, but you should not be more emotional than they are,” Tatrai says.
Talk about “it”
While cancer can become the elephant in the room when you’re doing your best to talk about anything but, you can avoid that discomfort by finding out what your loved one is comfortable discussing. If you’re unsure whether your friend or loved one wants to dig into it, just ask. “Most patients do want to talk about it, but some may take longer for some than others. I let them be the guide,” Tatrai says. “Some are not ready to hit it head on and they need time to grieve or just process the situation. If they want to talk about it, let them—just listen.”
Above all, remember this is unchartered territory for you and your loved one. Forgive yourself and them if it gets a little rocky at time—it’s all coming from a place of love and concern, and there’s never too much of that to go around.