Cancer rates continue to rise, with a projected total, according to the American Cancer Society, of 1.9 million new cases expected to occur in the US in 2022. It’s likely that you either know someone or will know someone that has received a cancer diagnosis. Many factors contribute to the climb in rates, but one thing remains consistent, behind every diagnosis is a person – a living, breathing, person with emotions and feelings to process what just became an unwelcomed attachment to their medical file.
Until you’ve walked in the shoes of a cancer diagnosis, it’s hard (and rightfully so!) to understand what the “C word” experience feels like, first hand, and how others relate to this news. The shock of “you have cancer” is real, after all, the word “cancer” has a negative association. It’s a foreign invader that just took up real estate in a once healthy body. The truth is, according to research, we all have cancer cells in our body, however most of our immune systems know how to keep these cells from becoming more.
Hopefully you’ll never be the one with such diagnosis. However, you may play an important role in someone else’s cancer journey. Often times, it’s hard to know what to say or do after you learn that someone you know has cancer. Here are a few recommendations to best support someone you know who has received a cancer diagnosis.
Support is being there for someone. Maybe it’s emotional support, where you offer a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. Other ways to provide support are financial support or an act of service, such as providing a meal, helping with laundry or running errands. Treatments can zap energy levels and any gesture of help can make a big impact. It could even be by praying or sending a card. If you’re unsure, ask for opportunities to help.
Everyone handles their experience differently. Some find healing and comfort through sharing about their journey. Welcome that and celebrate the big and small wins. To someone who may feel like their body failed them, even the smallest accomplishments are big milestones which deserve celebration.
This is important. Yes, we’ve established that a cancer diagnosis is terrifying. Yes, there is a chance that it could lead to a poor outcome, however, don’t treat the person as if they have already met that outcome. This can be expressed through tone, word choices, and even shared stories about another person’s individual journey. Each person is unique and most patients have a strong will to fight and that is something to embrace and encourage. Ask yourself, “why do I feel led to share and what would be the benefit of sharing a specific thought or story?
Medical decisions are personal, and should be determined in partnership between a patient and their doctor (and those they choose to share with). The key word is “choose”. If you want to know more about how someone is doing, a better approach is to ask open-ended questions and let the person lead the conversation, to their comfort level. Examples of questions to begin with are “How are you doing? How are you feeling? How can I best support you as you’re going through this?” The person may open up and share more, if and when they are ready. Reserve judgement on their choices. It’s a very personal experience that needs to be determined by the individual.
Don’t Offer Unsolicited Medical Advice
This one is a hard one for many. Often, when something is wrong, human nature is to want to fix it. However, without a medical license or an in-depth knowledge of the patient’s medical history, it’s best to not offer advice that wasn’t asked for. Maybe you have personal experience or an opinion that you feel strongly about. Remember a new cancer diagnosis comes with a mix of emotions, uncertainty, and decisions that need to be made. Instead of freely offering advice, ask the person if they would be open to learn more from your experience or opinion. Sometimes it’s welcomed, but let the person make that determination.
If you’re currently supporting or will support a person with a cancer diagnosis, refer back to these basic guidelines to best put you in a position that will allow you to join them on their journey and meet them where they are.