How To Talk To Someone With Cancer
After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last October, I realized more and more how awkward everyone got when the topic was brought up. Although cancer has become quite common nowadays, people are still unsure of how to, or even if, they should address it.
For the most part, I’m open to talking about it and am un-phased by questions and curiosity; however, it has also made me a bit socially awkward.
We get all weird around the “C”word, to the point that it can be uncomfortable for both the person diagnosed and the others in the conversation to talk about it.
Do you bring it up, or do you not? Do you ask how things are going with treatment or do you just talk about other things? Do you ask about prognosis or other questions out of curiosity?
Here are some ways to ease the awkwardness and let the other person feel it’s okay to share the very real journey they are on.
Be Okay With Talking About It
Increasingly, I found it difficult to bring up in conversation. Most of the time I didn’t need or want to anyway. It’s just something I’m going through, and yes it takes up a lot of time, but overall, I’m just doing my thing.
What I found is that when it does come up, it tends to shuts down conversation. People are just going about their day, and to hear that you are going through cancer throws them off. It creates that awkward pause. “Oh,” they say. “I’m so sorry.’’ They don’t know what else to say.
I want to tell them they don’t have to be sorry. That it’s life, and I’m okay. I’m just letting you know because I don’t know how else to describe my absence, thoughtlessness, forgetfulness, lack of keeping in contact, needing extensions, etc.
Don’t let this revelation be a conversation stopper. Ask questions, or even simply ask, “Oh wow, I had no idea. Do you want to tell me more about it?”
This leaves the door open for them to divulge more information or politely decline.
This is true for any hard conversation ― miscarriage, death of a loved one, divorce. Be open to giving space to people to share or go inward, depending where they are in the process.
Be Okay With Awkward Details
It’s happened more than once that someone would say I looked tired or asked if I was okay, and I’d simply say something about not feeling well. Inevitably, the person asks if I have a cold or flu or the stomach bug that’s been going around. Um, not quite...
I’ve felt like I have to dance around it. Are you honest and say you have cancer or just smile and nod? I wonder if people with heart or kidney problems have this dilemma. I sometimes wonder if the word “cancer” brings up some kind of finality that makes it harder to discuss openly than other medical conditions.
Sometimes we have weird stuff going on in our bodies. Things I had no idea would happen, like losing sensation in my tongue or my voice changing completely.
Trust me. I’m new to this, I’m just as perplexed as you.
It’s perfectly acceptable to shrug and say, “Wow. How weird. I had no idea.”
Be Okay With Giving Special Treatment (Or Withholding It)
Do we expect special treatment? No. Are we uncomfortable getting it? Many times, yes!
Do we sometimes need it? Totally.
Sometimes the only way I can truly explain why I missed a deadline or important date is because, well, I was in surgery, or I had a medical emergency, or I really had no idea that 10 days after chemo, I’d still be as sick as I was. When I book appointments or meetings, I really do think I’ll be feeling well by then.
Sometimes my siblings or friends would joke about “pulling the cancer card,” and I have resisted thus far. I have only used it legitimately when I missed a month’s worth of classes at the college due to surgeries and needed a doctor’s note. And twice to get in to see my family doctor sooner than I may have otherwise been able to get in. (Hey, when you’re immunocompromised, that cancer card can be a necessity.)
Be okay with offering special accommodations, or extending a helping hand and also leave it open for the person to say, “Hey I am doing all right, I’ll meet the deadline or I’ll be there as promised.” Most of the time, we really do want to carry on life as usual and not have a constant reminder that we are “sick.”
Be Okay Offering Help Without Needing An Explanation
Early on, after my diagnosis, I was at the grocery store, and after an hour of struggling to get through the aisles and finish up my shopping, I reached the checkout counter totally exhausted and short of breath. I asked the cashier if there was someone who could help me bag groceries, and she looked at me and said, “Is there something wrong with your hands?”
I was stunned. I said, “No.” She then asked me if I had a disability of some sort. I couldn’t believe it. In that moment, I had no idea what to respond. Part of me was upset, and I wanted to say, “No, but I have three large tumors in my chest that make it hard for me to breathe and I’m completely wiped out, so I could use the help,” just to see her squirm. What I actually said was nothing.
It was so awkward. How do you respond to that?
I had asked for help at the checkout counter before and never been questioned. Now, suddenly, I felt it was a thing. Outwardly I look relatively healthy and young with no visible disabilities or special needs, but inside, I wasn’t doing too great.
Moral of the story is, if someone is asking for help, they probably need it. There’s no need to go fishing for a justification.
Be Okay With Saying, “You Don’t Always Have To Be Strong.”
Asking for help is a hard thing for many people. We want to prove we can do things on our own and that we are independent. That’s for anyone, really: healthy, sick and everything in between. When you find yourself dependent due to a medical condition, and you lose some of that independence, we can sometimes push ourselves more to show we aren’t using cancer as an excuse.
Perhaps it’s an effort to regain some of that lost independence. Perhaps it’s out of stubbornness. The fact is that we sometimes need a reality check and to have someone we love say to us, “I know you can do it, AND I’m going to take that off your plate for you anyway.”
Be Okay With The Real Answer To “How Are You?”
I have a very hard time being fake. I am honest to a fault. When someone asks, “How are you?” I have to force myself to respond with the typical nicety, “Fine, thank you.”
For me, “How are you?” is an invitation to share. On a normal, healthy, upbeat day, that’s easier. On the days when I’m fine emotionally, but have some real physical symptoms going on? Not so much.
I want to say the typical “fine’ response because, truly, overall I’m great, considering everything that’s going on. Sometimes though, they push because they don’t believe you. So then you’re like, “Well... I’m losing sensation in my fingers and toes and the nausea is really bad. Other than that, I’m good!”
Cue looks of pity and you wishing you didn’t say anything.
So yes, when you’re talking to someone with cancer, you have to be prepared for a not-so-rosy picture. Be okay with that. Sometimes there are whirlwind days of treatment and doctor appointments and procedures, and not much time to just exhale and share some of what’s happening. Don’t feel like you need to fix anything. Just being physically present to listen is more than enough.
Be Okay With Sharing Your Own Challenges
Something I noticed is that friends or colleagues of mine would ask how I was doing, and then when I would ask them the same, they’d give me a short snippet, if anything at all. I began to notice that friends were checking on me, but weren’t saying much when I checked in on them. One evening while speaking to a colleague, she shared her very difficult health challenges and then stopped mid-sentence to apologize. “I’m so sorry I’m telling you all of this, you have cancer for God’s sakes.”
Aah, now it makes sense. Just because I have cancer doesn’t mean that I can’t listen or empathize with your life challenges. We all have them. They just show up in different packages. Mine just happens to be called cancer, but it’s not any more or less important than the challenges you are going through. Besides, we really do not want to be the constant center of attention or the only topic of conversation. To leave us out of your lives just further isolates us. I want to know what is going on in your life. I want to extend a listening ear or advice or a sounding board for your ideas. I want life to carry on as normal as it can, with maybe a few adjustments.
Be Okay With Letting Cancer Change Things For The Better
Cancer can be awkward, yes. But it’s also a way to hear stories of hope. It’s a way to connect with people you would have otherwise never met. It’s been a way for me to see people passionate about changes in the healthcare system, about you getting better, about you beating this thing. When you tell people you have cancer, they may tell you that you look great or that you sound amazing despite everything you’re going through, and maybe you really need to hear that that day. They may share that their aunt or uncle or dad had it and they beat it and they are doing really well now. People who’ve lost loved ones suddenly have a space to share their story. Others will tell you what helped alleviate symptoms or remind you to ask questions you hadn’t thought to ask. You will have advocates rooting for your recovery and cheering you on at every milestone.
One of the blessings of cancer is that, if we let it, it truly has the capacity to bring people together, of going deeper, of being more connected, and there is nothing awkward about that.