When someone tells you they have cancer, the response is simpler than you think

I have cancer. Please don’t start telling me about your friend/neighbour/co-worker’s experience with cancer. Please, don’t say, “Oh, so many people have cancer of some sort or another. You’ll be fine. My cousin’s wife …” I know you mean well but every cancer is different and the outcome varies according to age, stage, health and whether or not the cancer is spreading to other organs. Plus, if you start telling me the story of someone you know who beat (or didn’t beat) cancer, I end up commiserating with you about your friend’s experience, I try to make you feel better, I say, “I’m sorry to hear that.” That’s what you’re supposed to say – to me: “Sorry to hear that.”

And then what?

Say nothing.

Listen.

Say nothing.

Listen some more.

Maybe I will then feel comfortable enough to tell you what kind of cancer, what the outlook is, when the surgery date is, if radiation is required. Maybe I’ll tell you how I’m feeling, at least physically. It may be a short sentence and maybe that’s all I’m willing to share. Don’t press me for details. If I say that I feel lousy, don’t assure me I’ll feel better soon. If I say that I feel fine, don’t tell me I’m in denial. If I say I don’t know how I feel, maybe that’s understandable. Maybe you could say that: “That’s understandable.” Then, keep quiet, listen some more. If you do, perhaps I will share how I’m feeling emotionally. Maybe I’ll tell you my worst fear. Perhaps I’ll admit that I didn’t want to tell my children. They’d already lost their father to cancer; I didn’t want them to worry that it might happen again, only this time with their mother.

If you listen and give me time and space, you allow me the chance to reveal my worries, my fears, and my anger. Don’t make me angrier by telling me how to react or what I need to do regarding positive thoughts and herbal remedies. Don’t tell me you know how I feel. If this were true, you’d know that I believe in science and doctors and medicine. Of course, I will try to keep positive, to deal with things as they come along, to listen carefully to the specialists, to believe that every thing may be fine. But if you know me, you’d also know I don’t want to hear that positive thoughts will cure cancer. Please remember, despite positive thoughts, my husband died of cancer. Were his thoughts not powerful enough? Not positive enough? Did he not long to live to see his grandchildren born?

Let me speak. Let me say that my brain is foggy some days and I feel weary most days. Give me a minute to think of the word that I can’t remember. Give me time to find my car keys. Let me look in my notebook to find the doctor’s name, the next appointment date, the name of the medication. Please don’t tell me I look tired or pale. Don’t lie and tell me I look great. Don’t tell me to eat more nuts, less bread. Don’t ask me if I’ve been taking vitamins. When I say no, don’t imply that I’m to blame for not warding off cancer.

I know you mean well, but please don’t ask me what you can do to help. Don’t I have enough on my mind with tests and appointments and updating my will? If I know you well enough to tell you that I have cancer, surely you know me well enough to be able to come up with something thoughtful to do for me. Send a card. Send some flowers. Send some chocolate. Buy me a book. Not a book about cancer. Phone me, text me, message me. Think of me. Pray that the surgeon has steady hands and a clear mind.

Here’s what I’m doing for me. I cut my teaching hours in half and doubled my Pilates classes. I’m walking every day to build up some muscle strength. I’m listening to my youngest daughter when she tells me (yes, she’s telling her mother what to do) that I cannot live alone at my own house and try to recover on my own with store bought meals and pizza delivery. I must stay at her house where she can take care of me and the little ones can amuse me and others can come and visit without imposing on my time or energy or desire to offer them coffee. My daughter will drive me to my appointments, bring me to her house after surgery, keep me there, keep others informed, take care of me. I will learn to accept her help and to be grateful for it. My son will come and take me for a walk every day after surgery. I will learn to lean on him. I will learn to accept help from others. It will be a learning opportunity for me.

Let me make it a learning opportunity for you, too. When someone tells you they have cancer, please give a simple, thoughtful response, like, “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “I’m here for you.” If you’re inclined, add, “I love you and wish you well.” Be honest; be true like my older daughter who responded to my news by swearing, loudly, then said, “Sorry, Mom.” And I was able to say, “Me, too.” And we went on from there to discuss details and plans. Listen. Do something nice, and don’t expect anything in return. Don’t phone and ask if I got the flowers, the card, the chocolates. Just do something kind and thoughtful knowing I have enough to do, just fighting cancer.