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The Language of Helping a Loved One With Cancer

Someone who has never experienced cancer may feel apprehensive about how to talk to someone who has been diagnosed. Here are my two cents about communicating with a cancer patient.
Since my diagnosis, I've gotten hundreds of amazing messages from people near and far, from people with whom I have extremely close bonds to some I haven't seen or spoken to since childhood, all offering their own brand of love, support and encouragement. I've read each of these messages with an open heart and mind and, most importantly, with gratitude. This outpouring has been one of the beautiful things that has come out of having this very ugly disease.

One of my favorite messages that I received was from my dear friend, Nat, who was writing from across the pond. She wrote: 

"At some point I'd love to talk, if and when you get a chance. Mostly just so you know that I'm here, even if I'm not there. This is going to sound like a big favour, but if there is any way that you need me to deal with this (ie: super positive, realistic, plain old shutting up) then let me know. I really just want the chance to support you and give you the support that you need, not what I think is best. Because I love you and stuff, and also because I feel powerless and want to do anything I can. I also know that it's massively selfish of me to ask you to tell me what to do/how to act, but it comes from a genuine desire to give you what you need/want rather than hurting you or being counter productive to the process you need to work through. Also I love you, which I know I said, but it can't hurt to say it lots. xoxoxo"

Though we (people living with cancer) may all be battling a common enemy, all of us live in fortresses built of different materials, and we all have different defense strategies and different weapons in our arsenals. As such, the “dos and don'ts” in this post are not meant to presume that all people with cancer have the same needs. They are simply my proper response to the above message. They’re guidelines drawn from my own needs, from teaching communication skills and from what I've absorbed from the collective conversation I've had with others dealing with illnesses.

Some advice on giving advice:

Really, it's the good part of our natures from which advice-giving stems. When someone is sick, the desire of people around them to help kicks up about a million notches, and everyone wants to supply useful information: an article about that awesome new drug, contact information for a long-time survivor with a similar diagnosis, the most updated list of cancer-fighting superfoods. Here's the thing, in the weeks/months following initial diagnosis, there is SO MUCH new information that we need to wrap our brains around. It's like being forced to go back to school for both a major and a minor in life redesign. Attendance is not optional. Very quickly, we become experts on our illnesses. This is not to say that the supplemental material isn't welcome. It is. Send it along, but just don't be offended if I don't start taking mushroom extract pills.

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the General Discussions CURE discussion group.
Jen Sotham is a freelance journalist and screenwriter/director. She was working as a university professor in Busan, South Korea, where she lived for almost a decade, when she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2014. Still doing battle with the beast, Jen has since returned to New York, where she has been using her voice to share her story through film, essays and her blog, jenvscancer.wordpress.com
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