(Jan. 30, 2016) Few things make normally glib, sociable people turn awkward like cancer does. Their smiles vanish from their face as soon as the word cancer leaves our lips. A brief uncomfortable silence occurs before they think of a question or a comment. During that all too brief moment, my wife and I cringe, wondering what unintentionally insensitive question or comment we’ll hear.
I’m here to say, relax. You being awkward doesn’t help us feel any better. You know what would make us feel better? Everyone acting normally. You may not run into me or my wife in the real world, but if you haven’t been already, you will certainly be touched by cancer at some point. I’m hoping this post will prepare you to be a more understanding friend or family member.
Cancer is not contagious: They’re not lepers. For cripes sake feel free to give them a hug and actually smile at them. Radiation and chemotherapy don’t make them radioactive or give them superpowers. (I wish. She still can’t microwave food with her eyes and I still have to open all the jars) You taking a step back and having your face drop doesn’t make someone feel better. Ask about the treatment plan. Ask where they’re going for treatment. Offer to send a meal over. Maybe gift certificates for his and hers massages. Just don’t be afraid of it. We’re trying not to be and smiles are in short supply sometimes.
Only Tell Stories of Triumph: Guess what? We don’t want to hear a story about your uncle who succumbed to cancer after a brave three year battle. Do you want to hear the likelihood of surviving a plane crash right before you leave for the airport? We don’t want to hear how tough the side effects from treatment were. My wife is not your uncle. Every cancer journey is unique. If you have stories of friends and family who have overcome the disease and are living happily, fine, we’ll take those.
Reach Out: Sometimes people undergoing treatment for cancer have to miss some time at work. Usually not because of the disease, but because of the treatment. Even if they have family around, they feel alone and isolated from their work peeps. Remind them that you haven’t forgotten them. Call, text, and post funny things on Facebook and tag them. Or ask when you can visit!
Cancer is not a death sentence: Do not ask “What’s the prognosis?” What you’re really saying is “Are you going to live?” I’d love to hear my wife tearfully respond, “The doctor said I only have forty years left.” It’s her second time with cancer. There are millions and millions of people out there who successfully overcome cancer time and time again.
Hopefully this didn’t seem too flippant for such a serious topic, but guess what? People with cancer and their families don’t need you to put a pink ribbon magnet on your minivan or for you to run a 5K. They just need their friends and family to be who you’ve always been. Years ago before my wife had cancer the first time, I was the awkward, avoidant person, not knowing how to address the elephant in the room. The most supportive thing you can do for someone with cancer is be the same friend or supportive family member you were before they had cancer, because when the cancer has been beaten they’re still the same person they were, only stronger . ~Phil
Addendum: Two years after I posted this, my wife is doing well.