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Someone I love has just been diagnosed with cancer. How can I help them?
Finding out that someone you love has cancer, can be just as stressful as hearing your own cancer diagnosis. It is only natural that you would want to jump in and help them make decisions, cheer them up or distract them, but that may not be what your loved one wants or needs. It is not your place to ‘make it better’ or assure them that ‘everything will be fine’ – those desires are natural, but not within your power. Rather, it is your place to express your love and to give them ‘permission’ to feel whatever it is they are feeling – anger, sadness, fear, shock. If they want to talk about the hard stuff, asking “what if I die?” try to meet them where they are – saying “don’t talk like that” dismisses their feelings and shuts the conversation down. Another way to phrase that might be “I hope you are around for a long time, but it is only human to fear the worst. Would you like to talk about what death means to you?”
Be careful of discussing spirituality if you are not certain of their beliefs. You can approach this by asking them “Where do you find your strength during times of stress?” If they mention a church or faith, then offering to pray with them or for them might be very comforting. If they don’t, or if they say they are angry at God, please don’t judge them. Try to agree with their reality, by saying something like “I can understand that you are angry at God, it is such a difficult thing you are facing.”
Telling the patient to “call me if you need ANYTHING” is actually not very helpful. Their head may be swimming with all the things that need to be done, but the ability to concentrate and assign tasks may not be there. Our culture has also told us it is rude to ask for things, so most people are hesitant to ask for favors. Your best help is to DO, rather than to offer. For example, you could:
*Drive them to appointments, or drive their children to their afterschool activities.
* Do their yard work (or snow shoveling) without asking.
* When you grocery shop, pick up extras of the essentials, like toilet paper, light bulbs, and laundry soap, and leave it on their doorstep.
* Take their children when your family goes to a movie, park, or restaurant.
* Find out what they like to eat, prepare it in a disposable dish. Include a complete ingredient list and any instructions for reheating. Drop it off without asking for a visit or update.
* Send cards. Express your love. Fill them in on your news. Leave loving messages on their voicemail.
* If you have a special area of interest or expertise, you can offer to be their source of information. Areas that can be helpful include: nutrition, exercise, research, legal and/or medical paperwork/billing.
* If you want to buy them a book or CD here are a few suggestions:
There’s No Place Like Hope, by Vicky Girard
Cancer is a Word, Not a Sentence, by Robert Buckman
What Cancer Cannot Do, by Phyllis Ten Elshof
From This Moment On, by Arlene Cotter
Belleruth Naparstek’s CD’s for those with cancer (www.healthjourneys.com)
Any CD for relaxation, which could include nature sounds and soothing music as well as spoken word.
Anything you have especially liked to read (fiction or nonfiction) on CD for them to listen to lying down.
Dee Pipik lived with cancer for over forty years, giving her insight into not only surviving the disease but thriving despite it. Her podcast series highlights her cancer journey, including the idea of not being defined by your illness, but to make it a part of a life well-lived. The process, she said, begins with “a small but meaningful step, perhaps just three forkfuls of spaghetti”…and is told through a series of podcasts she recorded with her sister-in-law. Listen here.