By Mary Kay Jurovcik, guest blogger
There are times in our lives when we know exactly what to say.
When someone gets married or has a baby or graduates from college, we say, “Congratulations.” When we meet someone new, we say, “Nice to meet you.” When someone loses a loved one, we say, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, we often don’t know what to say. Just starting a conversation can be difficult because there is no presupposed way to talk to someone who has cancer. It’s important to remember that the cancer survivor is still the same person you knew before, and much about that person has not changed. But even for someone who you are close to, discussing a cancer diagnosis and treatment isn’t likely something you have practiced.
I’d like to offer these tips on how to talk to someone who is living with cancer.
Let the survivor guide the conversation.
Some survivors will give you every detail about their diagnosis and treatment. Some would prefer to remain private about what’s happening to them. I suggest following the survivor’s lead when it comes to discussing the details of the disease. I’m quite open about my experience, but I know some survivors who consider the details of their diagnosis and treatment to be on a need-to-know basis.
If they say they are okay, they are okay.
My survivor friend Lauren says when she told people she was doing fine while in treatment, they didn’t believe her. They would press her by asking, “I mean, how are you really doing?” If a survivor tells you she is doing okay, she probably means it. Maybe she is masking her true feelings for your sake, but I’d suggest taking her at face value. Sometimes, we just don’t feel like talking about it. So…
Talk about something else.
One of the hardest things about cancer is that it takes over your whole life. Sometimes it’s the last thing in the world you want to talk about. Visiting with a survivor and talking about everything except cancer can be so helpful. When I was in treatment, my friends sometimes worried about complaining or talking about mundane things. Often, there was nothing I wanted to hear about more than their regular, non-cancer lives.
Be careful of comparisons.
Pretty much everyone knows someone who’s had breast cancer, so when I discussed my diagnosis with others, they often wanted to tell me about the person in their lives who had the disease. My friend Karen, also a survivor, remarked to me once that it was least helpful to hear stories about people who had passed from the disease. While it’s natural to want to relate to the survivor by sharing other peoples’ experiences, remember that every patient, every person and every experience is different. The details of your neighbor’s or friend’s diagnosis and treatment might be quite different from the survivor you’re hearing from now.
Advice is great when it’s requested.
I got some wonderful advice while I was in treatment from other survivors and from friends and family. But, there is a lot of less helpful and misguided advice for cancer patients out there, too. If survivors are receiving treatment, they are being cared for by a team of medical professionals. At Providence, we don’t just have oncologists. We have access to nutritionists, financial counselors, therapists, classes and support groups. While sending articles about new treatments or ideas might seem helpful, it might be more than the survivor is able to process. Wait for the survivor to ask for advice, and if you choose to share something, be careful that it comes from a reputable source.
Sometimes the sun isn’t shining.
Especially when treatment ends, survivors are sometimes expected to just be “okay” – whatever that means. Survivorship can be hard, and it can be difficult to remain positive all the time. Even for generally cheery people, the weight of cancer can bring on the gray clouds. Bear in mind that the survivor’s life has changed dramatically since his diagnosis. Accept that he might be blue sometimes, and that your support is still vitally important. Be careful about minimizing the survivor’s feelings by offering artificially positive statements like, “It could be worse,” or “It will be better soon.” This may or may not be true, but it probably won’t improve the survivor’s mood.
I had many people tell me to reach out to them when I needed help, but while in treatment, I was so drained, just looking at my phone seemed like a colossal task. Don’t wait for the survivor to call you. Reach out to him or her. Call, text, show up (if that’s okay with the survivor). Treatment can be very isolating, and survivors often just need friends to come spend time.
Mary Kay Jurovcik is a wife, mother, writer and cancer survivor. At the age of 33, she was diagnosed with stage 2B, HER2+ breast cancer. With no family history or prior experience with cancer, Mary Kay took to documenting her journey through treatment, both for catharsis and communication.
She is currently working on turning her online journal, sticky notes and bar napkins into a book with the hope to help others facing similar and dissimilar adventures.
Mary Kay lives in Lake Stevens, Washington, with her husband, two young daughters and an old Rat Terrier named Squints.