Cancer is a terrible, terrible illness. I have found out those around you have very varied reactions to it. These reactions are in response to when you say the word cancer, people think of death. When you tell someone, you have cancer, you are telling that person you are going to die. This means that the person you are speaking to is forced to acknowledge your mortality. The awkwardness comes because they are also forced to acknowledge their own morality too which, unsurprisingly, is not an easy thing to do. So, there are a whole load of hidden demons lurking there.
People with cancer sometimes give others quite a hard time in their response to it. Whatever they do, it always seems to be the wrong thing. It’s either far too suffocating or they aren’t doing enough to help. This is because cancer and any other life limiting illness, changes you. You have no idea what is going to happen and ultimately, you are going to die. For this reason, your own life becomes much sharper. You can see through the fog of nicety and social conformity. You know exactly what you want. For once it isn’t about others, it’s all about you.
For me, to widely generalise common reactions, most people fall into the following categories:
The “I’m here not matter what” person
Every cancer patient has encountered one of these. I encountered one just last week. I was at the cancer support centre I go to and there she was, nursing a green tea. I said hello and got the full story. Her friend was upstairs in the breast cancer support group. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer about six months ago. This woman had been to every single appointment with her friend. She had been to every scan, every blood test, every chemo session, every radiotherapy session. She had cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for her. She had cleaned her house from top to bottom. She had walked her dog. She had accompanied her taking and collecting her children from school. She had been at her friend’s side ever since she had been diagnosed. I smiled. I was thinking what was going on upstairs. I bet that now she had finally gotten rid of her, at last she could now finally tell the others in the breast cancer support group what exactly she thought of her!
But she has been soooo supportive! I hear you cry. Well yes… but to a point. What you need to ask is how much of all this is to help her rather than her friend? I got the impression that her friend with breast cancer had no say at all. It seemed to make her feel better about the cancer diagnosis rather than her friend.
Her friend with breast cancer is partially to blame as well. When I started my various treatments, I was quick to say to all of my loved ones that I wanted to go through them either with just my husband or alone. I didn’t want to have the pressure of having to “entertain” people, especially through chemo. That was my choice. I was always struck by how while during chemo, you would have the cancer patient slumped on the chair. Next to them a chirpy friend would be asking everyone in the unit if they fancied a cup of tea. Although I guess this chirpiness is a coping strategy, it can be very annoying. Be honest with the person who has the illness. Just have a frank, straight forward conversation where you tell the person what you can do. Then ask the person if that’s acceptable to them for you to do it. A person with cancer is finding life hard, but they do have a brain. In fact they are pretty much the same person you were friends with before the diagnosis, so treat them as so.
The “Just Tell Me What To Do” Person
This person is freaking out. Maybe you are the same age as this person. You telling them that you have cancer is like the grim reaper telling them they are going to die. Obviously you can understand people being shocked that you have cancer. That is a perfectly natural response. What is annoying is the response to it. “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know…”
What’s wrong with that? Well it’s the ultimate non-committal response. It relies on the person who has the illness to conjure up a task for their friend to do. When you have a life limiting illness, your needs vary from day to day and sometimes from minute to minute. The “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know…” I think weirdly, takes power away from the cancer patient and gives it to their friend.
And all the while they are no closer to accepting the change in circumstances.
This response is more difficult to counter. I have been guilty of saying this when someone I know is going through a crisis. I guess the best thing is to tell you friend that if you are doing something, ask them if they want to come too. For example if you are going shopping, ask your friend if they want to come along as well. If they are too ill ask if there is anything they can get you. Be specific not vague. The key is to ask and to remember that you friend is still your friend. They just have cancer as well that’s all.
The “Do Nothing” Person
I actually don’t mind the “do nothing” person. To me the “do nothing” person is respecting your space and giving you the time that you need to accept the diagnosis. This is a completely different story if the “do nothing” person is your husband, your wife or your parents. If your support network shows no support whatsoever and expects you to carry on regardless of all the poisons and radiation that you are being exposed to then this is a bad thing.
Part of this reaction is denial. It’s no surprise that quite a lot of marriages break up when one partner gets a life limiting illness.
You must accept that your partner, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend has changed. They can do most things but there are some things they can’t do. If they ask for help, provide it. Don’t tut, sigh, moan and groan. This is also true for social arrangements. If they can’t come to your wedding, birthday party, christening, barbecue or whatever, accept it. Although it does look a little selfish, for the person with the illness, knowing that you have accepted their decision and are having a fantastic day, more that makes up for them being there in person.
It’s hard knowing what to say or do around people who have serious illnesses and there is no one correct answer. However the key thing to remember is that your friend, husband, wife, brother, sister’s needs come first. If they are not in a position to articulate these then use your noggin. You know what they are like. If they like milk in their tea and there’s no milk in the fridge, buy a pint of milk for them. If they are fretting about the washing up, do the washing up. You don’t need to ask permission, just do it. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Don’t make a song and dance about it, just do it. Also give your friend, husband, wife, brother, sister a hug. They will more than likely need that too.