I was 19 when my mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer.
She went in for a biopsy one day and woke up with her right breast removed. It was traumatic for the whole family.
Ten years later, she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer (the most serious stage). She has been battling the disease now for over 20 years. Cancer has spread to her lungs and bones.
When chemo pills failed and her cancer worsened, she went for chemotherapy for a second time. Last year, she went for a third cycle. Two months ago—just as her hair was starting to grow out—she returned for a fourth round of chemo as one of her tumors had grown by 30 percent.
Since my family has lived with cancer hanging over our heads for a long time, the dreaded “C” word in my family is no longer cancer but chemo. My family and I are already experiencing a fresh wave of emotional distress since her latest round of chemo—not just from what’s happening with my mom, but also from the current (and anticipated) reactions of the people around us.
For those of us who want to support a friend or loved one going through cancer treatments, and their family, here are seven things we can all do when we speak about it:
1. Do express support (without bringing in religion).
Unless we know the purported religion of the person with cancer, we should not assume they want our prayers. This is not the time to impose our religion.
Instead, ask: “I am a ____ believer. Can I pray for you (or your family)?”. If in doubt, say things along the lines of, “Wishing strength to you and your mom” or “Sorry to hear that dear…hope things turn out fine for her.”
2. Do avoid words like “cure” or “recovery.”
If we say we are “sending prayers of blessing and quick recovery” when medical diagnosis point to the impossibility of recovery, this will only aggravate those who would have explored, studied and weighed all the options. Some can only manage the spread of cancer—not hope for a cure.
Rather than mentioning “cure” or “recovery” when we don’t know actually know the possibility for a fact, just send well wishes.
3. Do have a point in your sharing.
I’ve met many cancer survivors who share their cancer story without asking for permission. By turning the attention to themselves, they unconsciously burden those who need support but now feel they need to offer words of comfort.
Do state why you’re sharing the story, and how you are trying to be of help. Explain, “I want you to know I can imagine what it feels like” or, “I am sharing this because I empathize and I want to help with…(whatever the case may be) ”
4. Do keep stories relevant.
Similarly, sharing somebody else’s cancer story doesn’t actually help, for instance, “My auntie just recovered from surgical removal.”
Do share what is beneficial. “My auntie found this useful during her treatment. Would you like me to tell you what she uses?”
5. Do offer advice only with permission.
“Hey, your mom should try…” is giving unsolicited advice. Even on the rare occasion when well-wishers have asked if I want advice and I have politely declined, they have often dumped their unwanted advice on me anyway.
Do be mindful of the stress families are already experiencing, and ask, “If she needs advice about her diet then I am happy to help”. Walk away if the answer is no thanks.
6. Do give the benefit of the doubt.
Recognize that cancer sufferers and their families would have already done their homework about cancer. They might be declining advice because they already know plenty, and might simply want a time-out from cancer talk.
Do ask, “Would you like to hear about what my uncle found especially useful to him during his chemo?” and then wait for the answer.
7. Do share complete information.
Don’t advocate this or that alternative treatment, drug or herb when you don’t have all the information. For example, suggesting acupuncture but not giving the name and contact of your acupuncturist who specializes in cancer treatment is not particularly beneficial.
Do tell us what exactly it does, where to get it, who to go to, and how much it costs.
Much of what I’ve shared above revolves around consent. As a sexologist, I see consent as not only applying to sex—it’s in everything we do. Yes is yes. No is no.
When I shared on Facebook about my mom going for chemo for a fourth time, three people gave me unsolicited advice. While I am grateful for their concern, they failed to recognize that my sharing what’s going on with my mom didn’t mean I wanted advice. In fact, I actually requested friends not share it in the post.
I hope these few tips will help us all to be more aware and mindful about how we may be truly helpful to those who are living with life-threatening or chronic illnesses.
Author: Martha Tara Lee
Image: Shannen Doherty/ Instagram
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren