There has been a lot about cancer in the media this week. We have lost musicians, actors, artists, mothers, fathers, children, sisters, brothers, friends, teachers, sons and daughters to this terrible disease. I don’t think anyone on earth is unaffected by the ramifications of cancer loss.
My own story is one of celebration and survival and for that I am grateful. Still, every time I see someone taken too soon because of this disease, I am sick to my stomach.
Sometimes I feel guilty because my story wraps up with a pretty, little bow. Other times I am mentally and emotionally brought back to that moment that I sat alone in the doctor’s office and my world was forever changed. Sometimes I get angry when I see how cancer is viewed…how people often comfort themselves by assuming it only happens to those who have brought it upon themselves through poor diet and life choices.
These emotions can either be all consuming or used as fuel to help others. In an effort to bring purpose to what happened to me, I choose the latter and one way that I feel I can help is by shedding some light via first hand experience.
People are always asking me how they can help their newly diagnosed friends and I never tire of hearing the question because it means people care enough to ask.
Here is some insight:
1) Anyone in any walk of life can get cancer. Vegans get cancer, non-smokers get cancer, athletes get cancer, young people get cancer, babies get cancer. I was in the best shape of my life when I was diagnosed. I don’t say this to scare you, but to remind you to have empathy. Do not email articles about better nutrition to your newly diagnosed friends. In fact, if you do not have a phd in medicine, do not speak to the nature, causation or cure of their condition at all. It is hurtful, not helpful.
2) Do not make a person’s cancer diagnoses about you. It may indeed make you uncomfortable, sad, scared, anxious…and you need to find someone to talk to about that, just don’t choose to unload onto the person who has been diagnosed. They don’t need to deal with the guilt of causing you pain on top of being sick and scared out of their mind. Also, don’t disappear from their lives because their cancer is too hard on you. That’s a level of selfish I’m confident you don’t want to be.
3) Be present, continuously. Most people diagnosed with cancer receive a great deal of support in the beginning. This support tends to naturally tapper off as the shock wears off for those outside looking in however, the affects of treatment and the really, really difficult stuff happens much, much later.
4) Show up. Watch kids, clean houses, make meals, buy funny, little presents…don’t be satisfied with the “let me know if you need anything” thing. We all say it. I still say it all the time and it’s not a bad statement but if someone you’re close with has cancer, they probably don’t have the emotional energy to ask. Just do stuff.
5) Don’t dismiss their concerns. If they don’t feel well 6 months after treatment and are worried about recurrence, don’t say “You’re fine. It’s nothing.”
I know this is said in an effort to be helpful but it isn’t.
A) You can’t possibly know that they are fine. You are not a CTscan.
B) It is dismissive.
Just listen and console with things like “it must be really scary to feel that way” and always suggest following up with their doctor. Take them seriously even when you feel there is nothing seriously wrong. I had a pimple on my neck yesterday and thought it was a lump and almost had a panic attack.
Immediately after I finished treatment I lived with a mindset of ‘when my cancer comes back’. After about a year I was able to move into thinking ‘if my cancer comes back’…and I am just now moving into a place where I am starting to believe that it never has to come back. It’s been 2.5 years and I still have side effects from treatment and I still have worries of recurrence. Cancer doesn’t end when treatment does.
We’re damaged goods, be patient with us.
6) Encourage, pray for, laugh with, cry with and do life with your sick friends. If your friend or family member has received a metastatic or terminal diagnosis, don’t mourn them while they are still here. None of us are promised tomorrow but that doesn’t mean that we walk around mourning impending death. I realize that cancer changes things and I cannot imagine the immense sadness that comes with knowing your time will be cut short, especially for young parents, so make every effort to find joy in the every day experiences on behalf of your friends and loved ones. Cancer is messy and painful and often times a very undignified way to die. No one deserves to die that way or to live that way for years at a time but try to muster up the energy to be the one who celebrates love and life while your loved ones are still here. Don’t wait for the eulogies.
To those who have had or are dealing with cancer, you are tough as nails. I remember hearing a very angry gentleman ask why having cancer was considered a fight. He was going through a diagnosis himself and said that laying in a bed being pumped full of medicine didn’t make him feel like much of a fighter… And it’s true, to an extent. I did not single-handedly destroyed my cancer because my will to live is stronger than those who passed away from it. I have always and will always hate the term ‘lost their battle to cancer‘ because it isn’t fair and it isn’t true.
You fight cancer with your attitude. You fight cancer by holding onto precious relationships during a horrible time. You fight cancer by being and doing as much good as you can even when you feel like doing nothing at all. You fight cancer by not allowing it to kill your spirit. It may scar you, bald you, hurt you and it can even kill you but you defeat it by not letting it kill WHO you are.
Since being diagnosed and becoming involved with Young Adult Cancer Canada, I have met more people with cancer than the average person my age. I have mourned the loss of more people from my peer group than most 32-year-old women have ever had to do. It is a unique challenge for us in this network. A person usually has many more years of life experience before they have to navigate through this kind of loss and fear of mortality but I cannot in good conscience distance myself from this community just because it would be easier on me. I cannot allow what has happened to have happened for no reason, for no purpose. Instead, I believe that God has given me the strength to recycle that which was meant to harm me to give me and it purpose, His purpose: To see everyone on this earth well loved.
Cancer sucks, but you can help to make it suck less.