I have stage 3 prostate cancer and I own it, so there. Now, bug off! See what just happened? For cancer survivors, like me, "cranky" might be a gross understatement. You, as a caregiver, may want to be part of my cancer journey, but don't want to step on any landmines along the way. Who can blame you?
But let's suppose you're itching to tell me about natural treatments. Nope, don't go there. I'm just getting used to my cancer specialists. Or, you may want to recount the story of your uncle who died a terrible death in the throes of cancer, but you're sure I won't end up like that. Nope, nope, and nope! Never compare someone else's cancer to mine. The shoe never fits.
As a sensitive caregiver, you want to empathize with the patient. Check. You want to soothe. Check. So, let's get started on this etiquette thing.
- Talk about anything but cancer. Cancer does not define us survivors. Yes, sometimes it leaves us exhausted and frustrated. Sometimes we can't even enjoy a silly sitcom. (Sorry, "Seinfeld.") We're as well-rounded as the next person. Cancer talk 24/7? Heck, no! Talk weather, sports, news, or anything else but cancer. You get the picture.
- Talk about cancer. Wait, you’re probably thinking that I just said talk about anything but cancer. Here's the thing: Survivors do want to talk about the "Big C," but on our own terms and at our own pace. Be there to empathize and soothe.
- Show affection. A hug is deeply felt during the cancer journey. I would give a million bucks for a hug, but not a dime for your Googled research. A warm smile is remarkable, spectacular, and memorable. These are precious gifts for the person living with cancer. By the way, what I said about hugs back there. Make them virtual until this crazy pandemic dies off.
- Giving is good. Well, most of the time. Soup is always good. It warms the body and the beleaguered soul. Pastry? Check. Artisan bread? Check. But I know what you're thinking: “Should I bring a ‘F**K Cancer’ T-shirt or coffee mug?” You know your loved one best. The diagnosis may be so fresh and painful that cancer swag would be a little premature. Timing is everything. Please leave your deliveries at the doorstep. You'll get a nice thank you card.
- Bad suggestions. Some people might say, “Journaling might help you.” Early on, I'd be thinking, “Why in the frickin world do I want to pour out my heart and soul on paper when the words ‘I am going to die!’ roll around in my head all damn day? I'm trying with all my might to un-think this crazy disease only to find it around every bend in the road.”
- Good suggestions. You might say, “Journaling might help you.” Yes, I know, I'm contradicting myself again. Well, here's the skinny: Journaling could be the very best outlet when I'm ready to write. Thankfully, I've been in remission for four years. To give back to those helping me along my journey, I wrote a book to lift survivors and caregivers, and blog about it on my author website. So, yes, "journaling" is part of my world. But, please don't thrust a journal into the survivor's hands until they're ready to write.
- By the numbers — or not. You've been Googling, haven't you? I can see that print-out in your top pocket. Please, for God's sake, stay away from reciting numbers on the prognosis for anyone's cancer. You know, 20% chance of survival for the first five years. Fifty percent for the next five. I may be still processing everything, factoring in how treatment will improve my quality of life. Now, you come along with a bagful of stats. Shoo! Ever the eternal optimist, you may want to say, “Well, there's always experimental treatments. I read a report from MD Anderson, blah, blah, blah …." Sorry, I had to cut you off there. I know you want to help, but please hold onto your print-out.
There you have it. Etiquette that you can ignore at your own risk or embrace it. Now, get out there and travel the cancer journey with your survivor. Just zip that lip and don't go overboard, and virtual-hug your way into the history books. Good luck to us. We’re going to need it!