Not Everything Is ‘Fine,’ and That’s OK: A Guide on How I Wish to Be Supported Through Cancer

There’s a fine line between toxic positivity and encouragement. Myself and other cancer survivors know that all too well.

What does support look like for me besides two straps, some Spandex and a couple of pockets to hold my prosthetics? It looks like a validation of my feelings and emotions. It looks like hope. It’s an acknowledgment of my disease, of my shortened life span and of what I live with. And some days, it looks like the young girls’ bralettes which I serendipitously discovered at Walmart the other daythat just so happened to fit my prosthetics perfectly.

My first experience with prosthetics and mastectomy bras was a pendulous event with the silicone forms sagging to my bellybutton by the end of the day; It was not one size fits all. When it comes to finding the right support or giving the right support, whether it be from a support group, family or friends, or mastectomy bras for that matter, as I have found out, is never easy.

I had a conversation with a friend recently about her father-in-law who has cancer and how his wife (her mother-in-law) is always saying, “Everything’s fine. He's fine. My husband will be fine.” She is in complete denial, which is “fine,” but by doing this she is not allowing him to express his emotions and the diagnosis he is struggling with. She is dismissing his emotions, probably inadvertently, as she tries to be strong and cope with her own emotions.

No one wants to be dismissed and she obviously needs support too. Her husband is scared and nervous and just wants to be heard, and rightly so. Knowing I’ve been in his shoes, my friend called me with the question of how to best support him as he has upcoming scans. I, too, have upcoming scans this month and we all know scans can trigger all kinds of emotions and difficult-to-suppress feelings of anxiety, stress and worries about the unknown. I shared with her a few of my thoughts on support.

Sometimes the only support we need is to be heard. We don’t need or want unsolicited advice. If we want advice, we will specifically ask for it. We don’t need toxic positivity or judgment. Instead of saying “You’ve got this,” maybe try “I know this is hard. We will get through this together.”

There is a fine line between encouragement and toxic positivity. Be that good listener and let us vent our worries and frustrations. Be the reassurance that whatever the diagnosis is, whatever the outcome might be, we will be supported.

Supporting me is not only about being seen and being heard, but also having those feelings validated and knowing that they are real and it’s OK. In my online support groups, there is a lot of venting that happens. In seeking support, we are looking for a safe space to be heard without judgment. We usually aren’t looking for a solution to the problem, just acknowledgment of the situation and validation.

Online, the written word can be especially challenging. The tone is often hard to decipher. One poorly worded comment is all it takes to throw off the whole vibe of the conversation and my mastectomy bra now becomes more supportive than the support group. Don’t get me wrong, I have found a lot of comfort in some of my support groups. I have made meaningful connections within these groups. Yet there are days when I feel utterly alone in my emotions.

Only another person living with cancer can truly understand the toll cancer takes on our minds, which makes it challenging for those who have not experienced cancer to offer the support we seek. I often find people forget that I even have cancer, let alone stage 4 cancer, because I look “normal” and act “normal” so it becomes that much more difficult for someone to understand what it is I’m experiencing emotionally. Living with an invisible illness and wanting to be seen is one of the hardest things about cancer. When you don’t look sick you don’t always get the compassion you desire.

There is no one-size-fits all and there are many ways to offer and receive support. A greeting card (also available at Walmart), a quick text message, a phone call to check in, an unexpected gift or your undivided attention can all be ways to remind someone they are not alone, and they are being thought of.

Even if you don’t always have the right words, something as simple as a hug and “I’m sorry you are dealing with this” is better than not being seen at all. Show up, be present, listen and choose your words carefully. Cancer or not, there are days in this life where we all could use a little extra support.

And after talking with my friend to follow up our conversation, her father-in-law’s scan results were “fine.”

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