It’s hard to know what to say to someone whose world is in the process of spinning clean off its axis. I get it, I really do. You want to help them. You want to be supportive. You want to know that, even in some small way, you have helped them feel better about what they’re going through. But then … well … you open your mouth and you have NO IDEA what you’re meant to say so you blurt something out and hope for the best but worry the whole drive home that you might have offended them.
I was only 14 when I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer so I brushed aside a lot of my frustration with friends not knowing what to say as an age thing. How are a bunch of teens supposed to know what I needed to hear? But then when I was 24, my mum became ill with what turned out to be a cancerous brain tumour and I realised that very few people - however old they are - have the slightest clue on how broach the subject.
It would be pointless me writing an article about what you should say to someone who has a family member with cancer because everyone is different. Two people going through the exact same thing will struggle with different emotions and get comfort from different words. So instead what I am going to do is tell you what not to say. Here are my five biggest pet peeves that people said to me while I was nursing my mum through her cancer.
1. “JUST THINK POSITIVE”
I’m all for a bit of PMA. I’ve read lots of books about the power of positive intentions and I’m pretty good at catching myself when I’m turning into a Negative Nancy. But it used to irritate me when my mum was ill if people told me to “just think positive”. I felt like it was a comment loaded with subtle pressure - As if bad test results or a scan showing the tumour had grown were because I wasn’t being cheery enough. It often left me wondering if everyone believed my upbeat thought patterns alone were enough to cure my dad of the cancer spreading rapidly through his body or beat the tangerine-sized growth in my mum’s brain. Perhaps more worryingly, when people told me to stay positive, it made me feel that I couldn’t talk about my sadness, fear or anxiety to them. All of those big, fat, scary emotions are totally natural when you have a family member with cancer so I found it frustrating when someone seemed to judge me for them or be dismissive of them.
2.“I KNOW EXACTLY HOW YOU FEEL BECAUSE …”
A few days after a biopsy showed my mum’s brain tumour was terminal and there was only a 25% chance of her surviving up to two years, a friend text me to say he knew exactly how I felt because his aunt - who lived in another country and he hadn’t seen for years - had a mild stroke. When my sister was grappling to come to terms with the fact she was about to lose both her parents by her early 20s, one of her friends told her he totally got it because his mum had high blood pressure and his dad had gout. I’m not trying to turn this into a game of Top Trumps but what I am trying to say is that you never know exactly what someone is going through so don’t pretend that you do. Even siblings are going to have different experiences, different stresses, and different challenges when they’re going through the exact same situation. By all means share your experiences, but just think twice before using it as an opportunity to try to out-do your friend on the woe-is-me stakes.
3. “IF I CAN DO ANYTHING JUST ASK” (and then disappear)
It can be hard to ask for help when you’re caring for a loved one with cancer. Perhaps by admitting you’re struggling, you feel that you’re failing. Maybe you worry that your loved one will feel guilty to know you’re having a hard time dealing with their diagnosis. Or it could simply be that you don’t like putting other people out. So if you’re going to offer help to a friend, make sure it’s not just an empty gesture and that you follow up on your word. Instead of saying “if there’s anything I can do …” why not say “I’m at a lose end next Tuesday so I was thinking I could sit with your dad and you can go and have some time to yourself” or “I’m over your way at the weekend so put any ironing to one side and I’ll pick it up and sort it for you”. Often, in the midst of all the craziness of coping with cancer, you can’t see what needs to be done because your brain is focussed on just putting one foot in front of the other so don’t always wait for your friend to tell you what help they need. One of the kindest things anyone did when my mum was ill was to organise a supermarket delivery of yummy treats. All she did was message to ask if we would be at home on Thursday evening after 7pm - no waiting for me to ask her, no questions about our favourite flavours, no telling me to be in at a certain time, or endless messages with questions about what I wanted.
4. “AWWW BABE, ANYWAY …”
A few months into caring for mum and I felt I was losing my personality. My days were filled with radiotherapy sessions, medication schedules and researching alternative treatments so it wasn’t long before I was struggling to have a “normal” conversation about anything other than cancer and that morning’s episode of Jeremy Kyle. I started to find it hard meeting up with people or calling friends because I panicked that I didn’t know what to talk about anymore. When I did start to open up, it sometimes felt as if they were silently waiting for me to finish talking so they could tell me what was going on in their life. And I get it. I get that it’s all a bit heavy and serious. I get that talking about cancer isn’t as fun as that hen do you’re going on in Marbs next month. I get that friendship is a two-way thing, but sometimes it’s good to remember that there’s a difference between just listening to what someone says and truly hearing what they’re saying. Don’t give up on a friend if he/she isn’t being as “fun” as usual. Trust me, nobody is as excited as they are to get back to their old selves.
5. “WHY DON'T YOU JUST …?”
Sometimes you need practical advice and other times you just need to rant. Often, when I just wanted to let off some steam, friends would reply “why don’t you just …?” and I would have to try to disguise the fact my eyeballs wanted to pop out of my head in a rage. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful but if the answer was that simple, the chances are I would have already done it. The problem is that when you have a loved one with cancer, so little is simple. When friends asked “why don’t you just get a professional carer so you can have a break?” or “why don’t you just see if there are clinical trials?” or “why don’t you send your mum to a hospice?” or “why don’t you just get a stairlift at home?” I knew their suggestions were well meaning but I thought if only you knew how much effort these things take! Before I found myself in the situation, I too underestimated just how much money, how many phone calls, how much paperwork and how many reference numbers it takes to do even the seemingly most simple of things like getting a disabled parking badge or arranging professional care. When you’re already emotionally and physically exhausted, it can be jarring when someone makes it seem you’re not putting enough effort in when the truth is that you have no effort left to give.
I hope this hasn’t come across as too whiny or put you off being there for a friend. I know it’s tough to find the right words - I’ve been through it twice and I still find it hard to know what’s best to say to other people going through the same thing! I suppose what I’m trying to get across is that some thoughtful words or a heartfelt gestures can make all the difference and help light the way for those you care about to make it through some of their darkest days.