The Importance of a Few Moments of Normal
If you have cancer or are a survivor, you know how your disease affects other people. It would be great to think that when someone gets sick all your friends and loved ones will form an impenetrable wall of love and support. The truth is that some people have the capacity to show great affection during difficult times while others have no idea what to do or say. A combination of fear, sensitivity, and sometimes ignorance conspires to put them off balance when attempting to console someone who is fighting for their life.
For the patient, a serious illness can be all-consuming. They can cycle through emotions faster than one would think possible and physically there will be days when they can’t even get out of bed. So, of course, this is difficult to deal with for friends and family. When I was ill, I was always amazed at how some of my closest friends suddenly disappeared while others were there to help. At the time, it annoyed me, but in hindsight it makes sense. If you have ever spent time with someone who is ill, you probably know how awkward it can be. What do you say? How should you act? Do you ask about the disease or do you avoid the subject?
God bless the natural caregivers who always know how to help and what to say, but for most people, this can be an intensely uncomfortable situation. The fear of saying the wrong thing or looking stupid is enough to keep them away. This loneliness is partially why we see higher rates of depression, anxiety, stress, divorce, and even suicide among critically ill people.
So, let me speak to all those friends and family members who are struggling with how to stay connected to a loved one with cancer. I have three things that you need to hear.
First, recognize that the person with cancer is still the same person they were before. They may look different (bald, scrawny, tired, etc.) but they are the same person. I remember lying in bed curled up in a ball because my stomach hurt so bad and wishing that I could just be normal. Anything you can do to help the patient feel normal is awesome. Take a few minutes and think about what you used to do with the person before they got sick. Obviously, they might not be up for a five-mile run or an hour of yoga but just try and do normal stuff - go to the coffee shop, watch a movie, play cards, or bake cookies. The goal is to get them to feel like a normal person, not a sick person, for a little while.
Second, recognize that your friend will be emotional. They may yell and scream or cry. This has nothing to do with you. Tell them it is ok. Let them scream and yell and rage. They are literally facing their own mortality and trust me, it is terrifying. I remember being on the couch one day and getting upset because I wanted a glass of water. I was yelling for my wife to get it for me, and she wasn’t responding. In a huff, I pulled myself out from under the blankets and started searching for her. I looked in all the normal spots before heading upstairs to look in my daughter’s room. By now, I had worked myself into quite a frenzy. When I entered my daughter’s room, I found her. She was curled up in a ball on the floor of the closet with tears streaming down her face. She was hiding because she didn’t want me to see her cry. She wanted to be strong for me, and here I was upset because I couldn’t get a glass of water. My anger immediately turned to sadness and shame as I realized how hard this must be for her. Shame on me for being demanding and impatient. I had been using my illness as an excuse to be selfish and not think about the feelings of those around me.
If I had one overriding piece of advice for you, it would be this; no matter how scared or awkward you feel about spending time with a sick friend or family member, trust me when I say that it is 100 times worse for them. No one wants to be the “sick person.” During my treatments, I would have given anything to be able to just have one normal day. So, if you know someone who is suffering from cancer, don’t worry about getting it right. There is no ‘right’ thing to say to someone whose world has collapsed. There are no magic words that are going to make it all better. Swallow the fear of looking stupid and just be there for your loved one. This is the same person who they were before cancer, except now they need you more than ever. Pick up the phone and give them a call. A few minutes of normal is worth more than you can possibly imagine.
Photo courtesy of author.