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I guess I have been writing this blog since around 2013. Five years is a long time to spend on a blog of a few hundred words. Right? That’s because I reluctantly became a cancer Griot after my first diagnosis of a rare sarcoma (GIST) in 2012. I bounced back as best one can with the constant audio of falling mortars in the back of your mind. I know it’s hard to understand how someone can grocery shop or celebrate a birthday in a war torn country, but I get it. You adapt. You alternate placing one foot six inches in front of the other. And you move forward. I used to tell people “it gets better with time.” It doesn’t. It only “gets easier” as does anything with repetition.
But you are not reading this for my story. You want to know what to say to your mother, father, BFF, colleague, or FaceBook friend who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Each year, over 12 million people in the world are diagnosed with cancer. The National Cancer Institute published this startling statistic recently, “In 2018, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 609,640 people will die from the disease.” Chances are you know one of those people very well.
Those of us caught in the eyewall of this malignant cyclone really need the emotional and physical support of the 7 billion people who don’t have cancer more than we need better diets, meditation, and targeted immunotherapy. Without you, the reason for our reason, we cannot make the changes in our minds that make the changes in our body to win the epic fight against ourselves.
I have had 100’s of people give me advice I never asked for about how to handle this diagnosis. Some of it was very helpful but some of it was incredibly hurtful. No, I can’t speak for everyone but I’ve been a willing ear and an advocate for enough survivors to feel comfortable offering this advice on things you should avoid saying to someone with cancer:
- “Do you have a family history of cancer?…Have you been around chemicals?…Were you a smoker? What is your diet like?” or anything that may be construed as “you brought this on yourself“. Even if I did, I’d rather hear it from the oncologist than my friend.
- “Disease is caused by sin…You need to repent.” As said by the same people who brought you, God is love. After someone’s foundation has been shattered, this sounds a lot like “God hates you”. That may not be what you mean but that’s what it feels like. I suggest you skip the “sinner” part and go straight to “God loves you”. People need to be receptive to difficult messages and, well intended though you may be, condemning a person in anguish may push them farther into a depressed state. If you are Christian and inclined to share a scripture, consider John 9: 1-5.
- “Don’t talk about it…Don’t say ‘I have cancer’ because you attract negativity.” For a person newly diagnosed with cancer, putting a sentence together is an act of sheer courage. The choice of pronouns or grammar, in general, is not high on the list of things we care about. This is a conversation that needs to take place because being positive and hopeful is essential to recovery. I preferred the gifts of audio books and paperbacks (#Dodie Osteen’s book is a MUST) which conveyed the same message from a faceless third party with the same experience. And, I needed to talk about it and talk about it and talk about it for two years until I got to the point where it wasn’t the start and end of my every thought. I could not keep all that confusion, rage, and heartbreak in my head. I am so grateful for the patient people who let me talk until I reached this place where I can help others.
- “The same thing happened to my friend’s sister (insert long, detailed story that ends abruptly when you realize that other person died and now you don’t quite know what to say.” Just think it through ’til the end before you share someone else’s cancer experience. If it did not end well, keep that yourself. Survival against all odds stories are better.
It’s been six years since I was originally diagnosed and I could go on but I hope this is enough to give you a bit of insight. There is no right or wrong because everyone’s needs are different. My best advice is to let the person with cancer lead the conversation. When you respond, say as many positive things as you can over and over.
Lastly, please, please don’t avoid your friend or family member because you don’t know what to say. Honestly, a few of my friends did not communicate with me until I was well on the road to recovery (months after my diagnosis) and that’s the excuse they volunteered without prompting. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that hurt me emotionally as much as the two surgeries. Match their courage to live with your courage to love out loud. I am ashamed to admit this truth but it was very hard to forgive them. I did but our relationship turned a few degrees below comfortable.
Most people don’t know what to say. You don’t have to talk. Show up. Hug. Be present. Be kind. Ask “What do you need from me?” Then, love us hard even when we are hard to love. Fear changes you.
Thank you for caring enough to read this blog. Please share it with someone else who is wondering what to say.