Excerpts from Lori Hope’s book, Help Me Live – 20 Things People with Cancer Want you to Know.
1. “It’s OK to say or do the wrong thing.”
“It’s almost inevitable that you will say or do something that could be misconstrued or in some way disturb someone with cancer. Just remember that you only use the misstep to do good, but also that it is never too late to admit to your friend or loved one that the most caring words escaped you-that you are sorry for any possible transgression-and that you want more than anything to help.”
CRC additional comment: It’s also OK to say I don’t know what to say or the best way to help but I am here for you.”
2. “I need to laugh or just forget about cancer for awhile.”
“Facilitating a temporary furlough from Cancerland for a friend or loved one can be easy as bringing over a pile of movies or a New Yorker book of cartoons or pointing your friend to a YouTube video of a baby laughing; or as silly as bringing over a puppy or kitten to play.”
CRC Additional Comment: CRC Executive Director comments on the importance of laughter in one of his recent columns in the Ithaca Journal:
“People expect our groups to be somber. Cancer is difficult, and there are meetings filled with concern and sadness. But there are also times that we giggle and laugh out loud.
Part of the reason that we laugh is that we can let our hair down (even if we’re bald from chemo) when we’re with other cancer patients. There’s no need to put on a brave face for anyone. If you have cancer and laugh, “outsiders” don’t know how to react. Other people with cancer just laugh with you.
Laughter also builds community. Our motto at the Cancer Resource Center is that “no one should face cancer alone.” It’s hard to feel alone when you’re sharing a laugh.”
3. “I am terrified and need to know you’ll forgive me if I snap at you or bite your head off.”
“When someone’s diagnosed with cancer, we cannot overestimate how vulnerable we become; how hard it is to think clearly; how anxiety distorts our sense, our judgement, our ability to think clearly, said Halina Irving. “Whenever we face a terrible loss or a threat to our lives-trauma-we regress emotionally and we need to be taken care of.”
“As medical doctor and support group leader Jeff Kane, said, ‘Not taking someone’s anger personally is a skill deserving of development.’ Lori Hope adds ,”Please work on developing that skill. Please forgive us. And let us know it’s okay for us to express our fears. Listening to us-truly hear us-can help us live well almost more than anything else.”
4. “I need to feel hope, but telling me to think positively can make me feel worse.”
“I don’t think staying positive means you go through an ordeal (cancer or otherwise) with a constant smile on your face and a string of don’t worry be happy quotes; sometimes being positive in the midst of incredible odds against you is just a willingness to get out of bed, to brush your teeth, comb your hair (if you didn’t lose it all!) and face the day that awaits you.”
“To foster hope, encourage humor when appropriate, and no cancer horror stories, ever.
CRC addition: Sometimes just listening and giving the individual the space to talk about their feelings, whatever feelings they are feeling at the moment, will help them relax and put them in touch with their feelings both good and bad. At times this process may help them feel better and more optimistic.
5. “I am still me; treat me kindly, not differently.”
” They have a disease, but they’re the same person, and to change the way you react to or interact with that person makes the disease more important than what attracted you to that person in the first place, observed Bay Area Tumor Institute Director Barry Siegel. What’s crucial is to remember that people with cancer are people first, and that by focusing on who they are as individuals and what they might need, specifically, you can best help them live.”
6. “If you really want to help me, be specific about your offer, or just help without asking.”
“If you haven’t had cancer or suffered from a disabling or chronic disease, or had a newborn, or had a close family member die, you may reflexively ask a friend or loved one in such a situation, ‘how can I help ?’ Or not knowing how to help, you might offer, ‘Call me if you need anything.'”
“But even making a specific offer can backfire if you’re not willing to make good on it. And making a nondescript offer or asking with all good intentions how you can help without taking the time to imagine what could really make a difference, can add to the burden of someone already shouldering a huge load.”
“For many, requesting and accepting help can be difficult enough, but once they do open themselves up, people with cancer can be doubly disappointed when others let them down. They already feel they are standing on a cliff edge that could give any moment and may berate themselves for asking in the first place. It may make it more dangerous to trust a friend, and perhaps others, down the line.”
CRC Staff Addition: If you have even the smallest doubt about doing something for a friend, family member, or colleague with cancer without asking first, it is best to ask them. When you do ask, be specific about what you would like to do. Lori Hope ends this chapter in her book stating, “The only thing you do not have to ask permission for is to silently send good thoughts of love.”