By Jennifer Grace Martinez
There are a wide range of reactions that an ill person receives from well-meaning individuals around them. Reactions that are perceived as negative can make a dramatic impact on the afflicted person. When in the midst of suffering, the afflicted person can be more emotionally sensitive than during periods of health, and people who are suffering with cancer are most assuredly in a state of high-stress. Stress is a major factor in maintaining or achieving health. Therefore, it is important for family, friends, coworkers or even acquaintances not to say things that will make matters worse for any individual who is suffering with cancer.
The following is a list of things that well-meaning individuals often say to someone who is suffering with a cancer diagnosis:
#1: “I know you will get through this…Just keep up your Faith.”
What you can do instead: HELP.
A person who is suffering needs actual, real people to give actual, real help and support. Every person can help, and should…despite the closeness or lack of closeness in the relationship. For Christians, Jesus calls for us to help those that are in need. He doesn’t call on us just to help our best friends, but rather our neighbors…meaning everyone. His second greatest commandment is to love one another as you love your self. What demonstrates love more than helping a person during one of their darkest days?
For the rest of the world, helping someone who is experiencing a devastatingly low time in their lives is just a nice thing to do. Sending well wishes, and describing your “hopes” does nothing for that person. Actually lending a hand is what is most important and appreciated.
There are several things people can do to help those families dealing with cancer.
- You can bring meals,
- Offer to help clean the home,
- Raise money for someone to clean or call “Cleanin’ for A Reason”
- Offer to go grocery shopping, or just BRING over healthy grocery items or staples.
- Offer to baby-sit (if the person has children),
- Offer to help with laundry,
- Offer to accompany the person to doctor’s appointments and/or treatments.
- Stop by the persons house to help care for the person for a few hours; making sure they are staying hydrated and eating.
- Coming over to keep the person company if you are incapable of helping in any other way.
People who are suffering with cancer can feel very isolated and alone. Surprisingly, friends and family of cancer victims often distance themselves from the afflicted person. They may do so for many reasons, such as not wanting to face their own mortality, not knowing how to process the cancer diagnosis emotionally or mentally, or not being capable of empathy. Others are in denial as to the intensity of the suffering someone with cancer may be going through. Others still, suffer from selfishness.
Whatever the reason may be, people who have cancer may feel isolated or alone during a time in their lives where they should be surrounded with loving and supportive friends and family. Do not assume that people are being helped, loved and supported through a rough time. Always do the best you can to offer help, love and support. You may be the only support that person is actually getting.
Not everyone gets the support they need when they are faced with a cancer diagnosis, and for those of us who have to suffer without reinforcements, EVERY LITTLE BIT OF HELP COUNTS. If you know that the cancer victim is receiving help, please do not let that inhibit you from offering more help and support. There is never enough help. It can never be too much. I guarantee you that the cancer victim is not sitting back in a lap of luxury with all of her “free” meals, taking advantage of having CANCER. Cancer is absolutely HORRIFIC. If a person is suffering, he or she needs all of the help they can get.
#2: “Be Positive so that you can improve your chances!”
What you can do instead: Show EMPATHY.
…My internal thought when being told to maintain my positivity in the midst of suffering:
What do I have to be positive about? Do you not understand the Pain and Agony I am going through both physically and emotionally? So, if I am unable to be positive due to the agony I am suffering through, (and the accompanying depression), does this mean I am responsible if the cancer doesn’t go away?!
When people get cancer, they begin to reevaluate their lives and their choices. They may begin to internally blame themselves for their diagnosis, trying to play detective and find out what could have contributed to their illness. They may ask themselves questions such as:
What could I have done to fuel these cancer cells? Did I eat too much sugar? Did I exercise enough? Was I eating the right foods? Did I allow myself to get too stressed? Have I been on the cell phone for too many hours every day? Did I do something to make the perfect environment for those cancer cells to grow? What HAVE I done?
A person with cancer is already dealing with more stress than imaginable. Any insinuation that a cancer patients’ actions are detrimentally responsible for whether a person lives or dies is just too much responsibility and stress to put on a persons shoulders. A good friend, family member or support system would show EMPATHY for the persons situation, and offer a shoulder to cry on if necessary. A person with cancer should feel free to express all of his or hers emotions without judgement.
Although there is merit in maintaining a positive outlook when facing the uncertainties of cancer, for some, this may be impossible. Circumstances, and one’s own physical and emotional limitations can inhibit clear thinking and can damper one’s ability to see the world with perspective. It is easier for someone with an ailment or condition who is still able to function in society; work, keep social engagements, have a semblance of a normal life despite their ails to put their lives into perspective, and maintain a positive outlook in life. However, if someone is so debilitated from their cancer treatments; writhing in pain for hours on end on a daily basis, inundated with depressed feelings due to lack of love or support during their trials, or perhaps (as it was in my case) watching my children suffer for months on end while being incapable of helping the situation, it is more difficult to navigate one’s internal ship to the “happy place.” When true, agonizing suffering is being had, it is all too easy for the ship to fill with water and sink.
A well meaning parishioner of my church gave me reading material on redemptive suffering to peruse in the midst of my chemotherapy treatments. For one, don’t expect that people in chemotherapy will have the brain function to read anything longer than a short note. Some cancer patients might read while undergoing treatment, while others might be only capable of finding refuge in television. I personally found television to be somewhat cathartic; numbing my pain as my mind was taken elsewhere. I clung to the television like a warm receiving blanket; it was my friend, and I could not have survived without it. That being said, asking a person who is suffering with cancer to make an effort to understand complex concepts such as redemptive suffering, and “aligning suffering with Christ” may be asking for too much. Again, my suggestion would be to follow the second greatest commandment the Lord provided, and to LOVE. In my mind, love goes hand-in-hand with empathy and compassion. Have compassion for the person, assure them that you are there to help, and care for them. Refrain from asking anything of them.
If you are keen on helping the afflicted person to become more positive, this should be done after REAL conversations are had. Everyone is different. Some people find it cathartic to talk about their suffering; hoping to find a compassionate, listening ear. This should be given lovingly and without judgement. People who have cancer can experience a variety of emotions, and not all of them will make you feel comfortable. Do not dismiss their feelings. I remember telling a close relative that I felt as though I was dying. She coldly dismissed my feelings, telling me that the chemotherapy was saving my life and that I most certainly was NOT dying. Her reaction to my very real feelings left me feeling alone and unloved. A better response would have been to tell me how sorry she was that I was feeling as though I were dying, and asking me to describe what I was feeling. If it was feasible, an even more loving response would have been to offer help or come over.
In conclusion, allowing a person to express their feelings of rage, anger, lonliness, sadness or fear can be helpful to a person with cancer. Especially so, if these feelings are met with a loving, empathetic and compassionate ear…without judgement.
#3: “I have a friend/relative with cancer…”
What you can do instead: Understand that everyone’s cancer is different and comparisons to other people suffering (or not suffering) with cancer are not helpful. Allow the person to experience and share their personal story with cancer.
Chemotherapy is different for everyone. There are different medications, and people experience different side effects. Just because you know of people that were able to maintain a job while on chemotherapy, does not mean that others can do the same. Everyone has a different treatment plan, with different drugs, a different medical history, a different body. Even two people with the same type of chemotherapy can have two very different experiences. Suggestions about treatment plans, should be given very carefully. As opposed to relaying another persons cancer story, whether successful or not, is not particularly helpful. A more helpful approach would be to share that persons telephone number so that the afflicted person could reach out to someone who might be able to empathize. If your friend with cancer was not living, you probably should not be bringing them up in conversation.
#4: “I don’t think that the treatment plan you have chosen is the right one!”
What you can do instead: Support any decisions made by the person with cancer.
The treatment plan a person chooses to follow is a very personal thing. Not everyone agrees with or chooses conventional medicine to fight their cancer. Not all people succeed at trying alternative methods, and it is understandable that any disagreements with regard to treatments are most likely being had out of fear and love. Although love is an honorable motivator to disagree with someones decision with regard to treatment, one has to remember whose body is being afflicted with cancer. A person has a right to their body, and to choose whatever path makes them feel most comfortable; regardless of the potential risk of death. Risk lies on both sides of the argument: to chemo or not to chemo. Making threats in an effort to change someones mind about whether or not to undergo radiation, chemo or surgery will only lead to pain and stress, and potentially irreversible damage to the relationship. Being supportive and loving is the best course of action to take when you are dealing with someone else’s life.
#5: “You look great!”
What you can do instead: Ask the person how they are FEELING.
A person who has cancer has most likely had to undergo many procedures. For my Lymphoma, this included a pelvic lymph node biopsy, an excruciating bone marrow biopsy, a port being surgically implanted in my chest (sewed in four places to the muscle). I have gained roughly 35 pounds due to the steroids that were given to me during chemotherapy. I lost about 75% of my hair, although others swear I didn’t lose a thing… Now that chemotherapy is over for me, I am left with a scar on my chest, thinned out hair, and 35 extra pounds that I cannot readily lose due to my weakness and my inability to lift more than a few pounds. Needless to say, my body image is not very healthy at the moment. Focusing on my physical appearance not only negates what I may be feeling inside, but puts attention on an aspect of my being that I do not wish to focus on.
However, physical issues aside, the real issues I have are within. I am severely fatigued, and in pain. I feel abandoned by loved ones and friends. I feel as though I was just in a war and was spit out on the other side of it. I am shaking on the inside. It has been three months, and people have assumed from the moment I finished my treatment that I was okey dokey, A-okay. This most certainly is not the case. I am rarely asked how I am feeling, although I feel terrible most days. Most people are unaware of the very real short and long term affects of chemotherapy. It is important to do your research. Depending on the protocol, a person can have long term heart or lung issues, cognitive issues, pain and the development of other cancers. These are just some of the symptoms that cancer survivors face.
In addition, cancer survivors as well as those in treatment can have both good days and bad days. It would be helpful to make it a habit to ask a cancer patient or survivor how they are feeling for as long as that person is alive. Considering that many people get cancer a second time, nothing should be taken for granted…least of all a persons health.
These are just some of the ways that a person can be supportive, and some of the things that people should refrain from saying to a person with cancer, or suffering from any horrible disease or illness. My chemo-brain is settling in, so I will leave this for now. Please feel free to comment below with any other suggestions that may be helpful to people who would like to be of support to people with cancer.
Thank you for reading, and God Bless you and your loved ones!
Jennifer Grace Martinez