How To Support A Loved One Who's Been Diagnosed With Cancer
There is no way around it: cancer sucks. And it's frustratingly, horribly common: even while science seems to be making major advances in fighting cancer, the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2015 alone, roughly 60,290 diagnoses of breast cancer will be made in America, and that the total new diagnoses of every cancer will likely be nearly 850,000. With those sorts of numbers, it's very possible that somebody you love, work with or know socially will be diagnosed with The Big C. What happens next? How can you be a viable member of a support network when you are terrified, sad and just want to go to sleep and wake up to normal life again?
I have a family member currently coping with cancer, as well as a sizable group of relatives who've popped their clogs from some version or other of the disease (yes, they would approve of that description). I have a few other family members who made narrow escapes from cancer, and another who actually worked in cancer research. If any family knows the skinny on how to deal with this sh*t, it's mine — and in spite of all of that, we're currently flailing while trying to support our family member with cancer as much as anybody else. But our experience can be your gain.
Here are eleven tips, taken from my own life, on what to do – emotionally, educationally, even sartorially – when somebody close to you gets a call from the oncologist with bad news. Also: I am sending you a hug through the computer screen.
1. Get All The Information And Ask Good Questions
Cancer is a single word that covers a diverse group of illnesses, all of which have their own profiles, risks, treatments and future possibilities. The more educated you are about what's going on, the more in control you'll feel, even if the knowledge you're gaining is depressing or downright horrible. If you're a close family member or friend who can actually be in the interviews with specialists, here's a list of questions that may help, from the Mayo Clinic. Whatever you do, DO NOT use discussion forums or random Googling to gather information about survival rates and personal experiences; use trusted resources like the American Cancer Society and Cancer Treatment Centers Of America.
2. Prioritize The Person Who's Been Diagnosed
Cancer is big, and dramatic, and a cancer diagnosis can sometimes cause other people in the person's family to fall apart or use the diagnosis to attract attention to themselves. You all need to maintain mutual support with the diagnosed person at the center. Give them the most time, the most physical and communicative support and the most emotional space.
3. Share Details As Widely And Fairly As Possible
In my experience, keeping details of someone's cancer diagnosis from family members or friends because you're afraid that they're too frail, busy, delicate or otherwise engaged to deal with the information rarely ends well. Except in the case of elderly people with advanced dementia who may not be able to process the information, "protecting" people from bad news is not a strategy that will build trust or help you support one another. Being sensitive about delivering details is one thing (not in the middle of a wedding, for instance) — but maintaining a wall of silence is another.
When sharing details with vulnerable adults, it's always best to ask: how much would you like to know? How would you like to receive news? How can we structure the web of communication so that everybody gets what they need? Let them make the choice.
4. Let Yourself Get Angry (But Not At Anybody Else)
Anger is a common part of cancer diagnosis for patients themselves, according to the American Association of Clinical Oncology — but it stands to reason that it also often affects those around the patients, too. If you have a therapist, they'll probably encourage you to let out your emotions, which you may feel guilty about having — because, after all, this is not your cancer, but somebody else's. If you do feel angry, find a safe and healthy way to express your fury at the universe/God/everybody else on your own.
5. Understand That Every Diagnosis Is Unique
There's a now-famous xkcd comic by Randall Monroe called "Lanes" that perfectly sums up the difference between normal disease diagnosis and cancer diagnosis. With most diseases, you're cured or you die/lose a limb/what have you. Cancer doesn't follow this two-part process. Even if you survive your first meeting with it, its nasty tendency to metastasise (spread to other parts of the body) means that you still have a risk of recurrence — sometimes a high one. The ways in which the cancer may spread, where and how fast depend both on its particular type and lots of factors about the patient, like age. Hence the need to do your research and understand that this particular cancer, happening to this person, is unique.
6. Keep A Record Of This Time
From personal experience, I can tell you that cancer can be a headf*ck. You can lose track of what happened when, and time can lapse into one weird long telescopic flow, relieved by a few moments of levity. Start keeping a brief diary of what happens — particularly if it's good. It's great for medical reasons (as you can use it for reference), but it's also a way of tracking your mood and preserving awesome memories of time with this person, because that's the sort of stuff that can fall by the memory's wayside in the onslaught of stress.
7. Use It As An Excuse To Build Bridges (Not To Fall Back Into Bad Patterns)
We've all seen the indie films: estranged family comes back together for mother's cancer. Family fights each other, family loves each other, family has emotional catharsis. But if you can, don't use the need for support as a way of falling back into emotional patterns you've grown out of. Reverting to your old teenage snark? Always getting into arguments about somebody else's life choices? Nope. It can be perversely comforting to fight with loved ones like you used to when you're under stress, but try to avoid it.
8. Recognize That "Normal" Means Something Different Now
There will be days when life continues as it always did. This will seem both perverse and a relief. But it's often normality that those suffering from severe diseases crave most: one Scottish roundup of research found that people in hospices and in advanced stages of cancer rated "maintaining a normal life" as the number one priority in their lives. Keeping a routine is important; cancer will be absorbed into your day-to-day life, even if it seems far too bizarre and alarming at first. Try not to be freaked out by this.
9. Resist The Temptation To Isolate
It's pretty common for friends or family of cancer sufferers to feel isolated from others who don't have cancer in their lives. Reaching out to your friends and personal support network is a good idea for your own mental health, and also for the sake of the person who's been diagnosed — being supported yourself means that you'll be able to more effectively support them. And don't feel as if you're creating drama or being "over-emotional" by mentioning it to friends; it's important and distressing, and your feelings are valid.
10. Be Prepared For Your Loved One To Experience Physical Change
This can be one of the most drastic and shocking parts of being part of a cancer support network: coping when the person begins to physically change. Some kind of change is likely, as radiotherapy and chemotherapy both wreak deep tolls on the body, while cancers themselves are obviously serious physical stressors. Be prepared, particularly if you're seeing your friend or relative for the first time in a while, for them to look considerably worse.
11. Consider Doing Minor Funeral Planning Early If It's Near The End
This is an excruciating and morbid piece of advice, but one I have to give anyway. The experience of grieving after a person has passed away from cancer may be easier for you if you've already bought a dress or suit to wear, and have done other organizational things — like write down a list of people to invite to the funeral.
It's preemptive, and it may not be for you; some of us really benefit from focusing on a list of Things To Do in the sh*tty time after death. But if you know you prefer breathing space for grief (or that you won't be able to do these things after your loved one passes), you might want to consider it.