What to Say to a Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patient
Today I got the news that someone I love has cancer. I’m not going to call for a few days because I remember the initial hit of the diagnosis. It is a panic that doesn’t show any signs of subsiding. I remember trying to wash windows several hours after I heard the news and getting mad at the people who told me to stop. I was looking for a brief escape from the words, “You have cancer.” Later that night – after it had finally sunk in – I became quite sick, almost as if my body’s natural reaction was to purge itself of my horrible reality. I went to bed crying and woke up crying.
So I have been mentally walking through the upcoming conversation with this person. I’m sure she is devastated to the point of numbness. I found myself filing through old memories of what was said to me. Some great and some really awful. So from one who experienced it, I can at least offer a few gems of how to talk to a newly diagnosed cancer patient:
1. It’s OK to cry, but not OK to lose it. Unless you are the spouse, child or parent of the person with cancer, do not put them in a situation where they have to console you. This is the main reason I’m waiting a few days to talk to her. I can process the information myself and call when I’m reasonably calm.
2. Don’t say, “Everything’s going to be all right.” You don’t know that. And don’t tell that person about your Aunt Gina who battled cancer and lived to be 101. Guess what, I’m not Aunt Gina. These stories didn’t help at all. I know that cancer doesn’t play fair, and I’m already crabby that I’m cancer’s most recent benefactor.
3. No links in the inbox, please. The offering of information to a newly diagnosed cancer patient is not always a great idea. They are already dealing with information overload. The links that tell you what causes cancer imply that we did something blameworthy. The ones that claim chemo is a pharmaceutical conspiracy will put us into a panic. The ones that offer holistic alternatives such as coffee enemas and angel readings will stress us out. (When will I find time/money for that?). And the ones that offer products for faster hair regrowth are just plain insensitive. Yes, I got every one of those links.
4. Don’t ignore it or pretend like you don’t know when you see them. I was OK with, “I really don’t know what to say.” Cancer reminds us of how vulnerable we are, so as patients we are OK with your honesty. Just remember suggestion number 1.
5. Don’t ask what you can do to help. I was too exhausted to think about everything that needed to be done and then assign tasks. Think of something, make a plan and follow through. Food is always appreciated. What needs to be done at your home? Is it the season to rake leaves or hang Christmas lights? These are things that just won’t get done during chemo but those little nuggets of normalcy are huge for the cancer patient.
6. Acknowledge. Text, email and send cards and/or flowers. Even if the patient is just an acquaintance, positive words are powerful. As patients we are going to grieve the roadblock that has been placed in our path. Reminders of what we have to be positive about put us back in balance and truly support our fight.
The one thing I can offer people who are recently diagnosed with a devastating illness is the unspoken knowledge that I get it. I get the pain, the anger and the unfairness of it all. Even so, because every situation is so unique I won’t compare our experiences or even talk about it unless she asks. Especially in the beginning. At that point, the only thing I really want to say is that I’m in her corner.
Amy Annis, a crazy sexy cancer survivor, is a believer of the healing power of yoga. After teaching for over a decade she launched her yoga retreat business on beautiful Madeline Island, Wi for all levels of yoginis and adventurers.
Photo credit: niznoz