I have never given much thought to the power that words and actions can have on one’s mental state. But as of recently, things that people have done for me or said to me have changed my outlook on my whole day (either good or bad). I know I need to depend on the hope that Christ gives and not let the words of others have such an effect on me, but I am human and they do. These are things that I would never have considered before, so I thought I would shed some light based on my recent experiences. Please don’t be offended! I am pretty skilled at putting my foot in my mouth myself, so I can relate!
1. If you have a story about someone you know with cancer… and they died… Don’t tell it to me!
Even if you find the story inspirational, (which it very well may be) I probably won’t see it that way at this point in my life. All I hear is that they had cancer and now they are gone. Maybe when I am further out from this disease, I can appreciate the story, but right now I am not in a place to hear it.
My radiation oncologist gave me some constructive advice. He said, “Your story is not their story.” My experience is not the same as anyone else’s and should not be compared to others.
He also told me that this is the one time in my life where it is acceptable to stop someone when they are telling me a story about their great aunt “what’s-her-name” who had a long journey with cancer that didn’t end well. He told me to tell them, “I’m sorry. I don’t need to listen to this at this time of my life.” I don’t know what it is about being bald, but everyone has a story about someone with cancer they want to share with me.
“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” Proverbs 12:18
I have found that cancer treatment has a huge mental component. I am fine 96% of the time, feeling calm and enjoying my life, but the other 4% of the time anxiety threatens to overtake me. Most of the time it is directly correlated to a well-meaning comment from someone. I would just encourage you to think twice before you share a story about someone else’s cancer journey.
2. Don’t tell them you know EXACTLY what they are going through because you once had a suspicious looking mole…
I’m not discounting that it was a scary experience, but I’m not sure you know the level of fear that comes from awaiting PET scan results to see if your cancer has overtaken your body.
I don’t even claim to know what another person with cancer is going through. Every journey is different and has its own struggles. Also, every person is unique before they are diagnosed with cancer, so of course they are not going to handle their journey the exact same way as anyone else.
3. Don’t ask what their prognosis is.
Nothing makes me want to vomit quicker than thinking about the different direction my diagnosis could have taken. I have been given a pretty great prognosis and I hate being asked about it, so I can’t imagine how unsettling it must be for the people who don’t have the best news to give. If they bring it up, great! If not, I would strongly encourage you to leave it alone.
4. SHARE your success stories!
I want to hear stories of survivors! I want to know there is life after chemo. I think of death and illness so frequently. I crave to know that life will begin again. So often we hear of the lives that cancer has taken and I think that sometimes it overshadows the MANY who have battled and won. It boosts my spirit to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have had one lady who has been through a somewhat similar experience tell me that this is a season of my life and I will get through it. I know she doesn’t have a crystal ball but hearing these words empowers me to fight harder.
5. Send cards, encouraging texts, little gifts, ask how they are doing, and support them
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11
There are 4 different women who send me a card every week, and I love getting them. Most of them say “still praying” which gives me such a mental boost.
I also have a few friends that text me every so often telling me they are praying for me or send me scripture verses they find encouraging. They remember what days my treatments and appointments are and text me to let me know they are praying or telling me good luck!
I have also received so many small pick-me-up gifts. Nothing extravagant. But it makes me feel loved and lifts my spirits knowing that I am being thought of. So, shower your friends or loved ones going through trials with these sorts of things.
Adam and Alli have been so supportive every step of the way. They have offered their pool multiple times; saying I can come relax and enjoy it anytime I would like. Alli even set up their loft as “sanctuary” of sorts for me to escape should I need it. She bought comfy blankets and put encouraging quotes on the walls and stocked the room with things just for me.
6. Don’t forget them
Cancer is a long journey. Mine is not nearly as long as other people that I know. Some people have years of treatment. I am almost finished with chemotherapy which has lasted 16 weeks. I have surgery in August, next 2-5 weeks of radiation, then two more operations to follow that. The road is long. I have been blessed with a wonderful support system who has been with me every step of the way and will continue to be with me, but I can see how it would be easy to forget that people are struggling. Once the shock has worn off from finding out that someone has cancer peoples’ lives go back to normal, as they should.
I would encourage you to check in on the people that you know with cancer and other chronic illnesses to make sure they feel loved and supported. This is an area that I have failed at in the past, but now I am more aware of it. My sister is very good at this. She calls me every day on her way home from clinicals to tell me about her day but I know her secret… she is checking up on me; making sure I’m ok. And I love her for that.
7. Be very careful about the phrase “I have some bad news.”
Do you really have bad news? Is it life-changing news? I have heard that phrase before, and it ended with a cancer diagnosis. So yeah, I get a little panicky when someone says they have bad news and it turns out Walmart was out of the brand of yogurt that they like. DO NOT start a conversation that way unless it is really bad news. I’m not sure when this little quirk will fade, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets this way after the experiences that I have had.
I also had about a month where the sound of my phone ringing sent me into a panic because it seemed every time I answered it someone was giving me bad news.
8. Have a conversation with them that has nothing to do with cancer
Talk of cancer, doctor’s appointments, treatment, and tests have overtaken my life. It is so nice to have a conversation with someone where they never mention cancer. I can have a conversation and escape my new normal. A few minutes when I can forget that I have no hair under my scarf or a port in my chest.
9. Make sure they have something to look forward to or a project to work on
This is more for a very close friend or relative. It helps knowing I have something fun to look forward to at the end of the week. Even if it is going out to eat, a concert, or getting a pedicure. I feel like it breaks up the monotony of dealing with the nausea, the bone pain, or the many of their side effects that accompany chemo.
One of my most enjoyable times since this ordeal started was towards the beginning when Robbyn was still in the NICU. We had a spur of the moment evening at my sister’s house where my kids and hers watched Beat Bugs episodes in a pile of blankets. Holly and I just sat there not really talking but enjoying their company. It was absolutely nothing life-changing, but I felt that for a few hours, that my life had some semblance of normalcy.
I have also found that working on projects helps to keep my mind off of stressors in my life of which I have no control. I have “remodeled” our mailbox and revived our front porch. Neither of these projects have cost very much or taken too much time, but they have served their purpose in keeping me sane! I like doing these projects and planning for the future. It helps me to see there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
10. Pray for them
It’s the most important thing you can do.
- Pray often.
- Tell them you are praying for them.
- Have others pray for them.
- Ask specifically what you can pray for.
I have friends who text or ask me in person what specifically they can be praying about for me. They pray for peace when I need peace or healing when I’m in pain. Knowing that they are continuing to pray to Jehovah-Rapha, “the God who heals,” on my behalf makes me feel so comforted.
“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:18 NIV
This list is not the gospel. Not everyone feels the same way I do, I’m sure. These are just some helpful hints from my experience, and if they can help someone else support a loved one with cancer or chronic illness, then it is all worth it.