How To Support Someone With The Big C
Support is a great thing; You need it in your shoes to protect your arch and in your sports bra to keep “the girls” in place. When you receive the scariest news of your life, you definitely need all the mental and emotional support you can get.
Once you’re told you have The Big C, you go through a process of deciding how far and wide to disseminate the news. Do you call people? Text them? Post on your Facebook and Instagram accounts? Print out a screenshot from Kindergarten Cop where the little kid says to Arnold Schwarzenegger, “It might be a tumor” - then plaster that image on telephone poles across your neighborhood?
After you’ve settled on a strategy for sharing this not-so-good news, you can expect an onslaught of people sending thoughts, prayers, positive vibes, well wishes, and any other platitudes that may cheer you up. These notions are super sweet as cancer is scary, and the warm envelope of encouragement sometimes shields you from mentally spiraling down the “worst case scenarios" wormhole.
It’s human nature to want to help someone through this experience, and it’s a huge blessing to have people around you that want to help. But despite loving intentions, people may inadvertently say things that feel akin to running sandpaper over your already-fragile emotions.
“This is only temporary.”
“This will go by faster than you know.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“At least you have the ‘good’ kind of cancer.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Soon the dark times will be behind you.”
“You’re so strong.”
As much as I appreciated their kindness, that type of sentiment only offered so much comfort. Those upbeat assurances sort of glossed over the fear that fully flooded my soul. I didn’t feel strong (even though I was). It didn’t feel like treatment would be quick (even though it was). It didn’t feel temporary (even though it was). I needed my pain to be recognized, not brushed over. I needed to feel seen and heard.
So, how CAN you support someone who is fighting cancer? Here’s what made a difference for me.
Sit with me in my dark moments.
It sounds simple, and it is. Hold space for your friend/ family member. Literally, just listen. Let me gripe. Let me verbally vomit out all my dark thoughts, fears, complaints, and resentments. Instead of trying to soothe those prickly edges, please acknowledge that you hear me and that this does suck.
Meet me in the darkness and chill with me there. Because the truth is, nothing you can say will make my cancer go away. However, you can join me in this yucky headspace and that helps one million percent. It makes me feel less alone in the trudges. Even if you don’t know what it feels like to have cancer, you know what it feels like to be scared and have no control over certain things. It’s very reassuring to know you truly understand my emotions at their core.
Upon announcing your diagnosis, people will inevitably tell you to let them know if you need anything. Which is rad. But most of the time I didn’t even know what I needed! What does help is giving a concrete offer for a specific gesture. For example, a buddy of mine called me in the middle of treatment and said, “I’m coming over at 5 tomorrow,” and she showed up with bags of delicious homemade food. I was touched and very well-fed for the next several days. And I think I kept all of her Tupperware. (It was the nice glass type, so don’t judge me.)
Also, several girls from my high school (many of whom I hadn’t seen in twenty years) asked for my address and mailed me care packages from across the country. The gesture meant the world to me and will stay with me for the rest of my life. The packages contained candy, snacks, books, cards, socks, trinkets, drawings from their kids, bean bag heating pads, and other fun stuff that made me teary-eyed with gratitude.
Literally, just check-in.
If you don’t have the time or resources to cook or put together a care package, that’s no problem - a very simple text just asking how I’m feeling goes a long way. It lets me know you’re thinking of me and you care about my well-being. Each time I received one of those messages, it made me smile and quelled the feelings of loneliness and isolation. (And bonus points if you include memes, bad jokes, or pictures of your pets.)
As a final note, one thing I would kindly ask you NOT to do is share suggestions on how to cure cancer using alternative methodologies. I am all for homeopathic remedies in the right situation, but getting a cancer diagnosis was scary enough. The overwhelming pile of uncertainty was only exacerbated by suggestions about trusting pseudoscience to cure my disease and further zapped my fried nerves. Let me trust my doctors and science-backed methodologies to cure my cancer, please and thank you.
At the end of the day, kindness, love, encouragement and literally just BEING there is the best way to be there for someone with cancer.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Kimberly is a stage three ovarian cancer survivor who loves writing, reading, weightlifting, coffee, cats, marketing, making bad jokes, and laughing until her stomach hurts.