When David* was diagnosed with the most aggressive form of brain cancer and told he had a year at most to live, he and his wife Angie* went through a very difficult time of adjustment. Knowing that their wide circle of friends and large family were there for them meant a lot.
Urs Eschbach, a retired pastor, lost his wife to cancer in 1997 after a five-year battle, during which there were longer periods of hope and respite, and several setbacks. He knows the importance of caring people around him. A counsellor himself, he has been at both the receiving and giving end of a desire to help those suffering.
David and Angie, and Urs Eschbach share some of their experiences and thoughts on what is helpful and what is not, in the interactions with someone diagnosed with cancer.
- Interact. David tells of a friend who moved out of his way in a grocery store so she wouldn’t have to greet him. It’s hurtful. A simple sentence such as: “I’m sorry to hear about your illness,” will do and the person can react as they feel. At least you’ve made contact.
- Write a letter. Angie found letters the most helpful. Whereas David worked out his pain and frustration in discussions with people, she withdrew, needing time alone to come to grips with the new reality. “A letter can be read and reread, or put aside if it doesn’t feel right,” Angie says.
- “Be authentic in what you write,” David adds. It’s OK to show your pain. He doesn’t like pat answers and empty phrases. Often your letters will remain unanswered. That doesn’t mean they aren’t appreciated — there just isn’t time and strength to write.
- Send a short email if you often corresponded with the person that way. David found email easier to respond to than letters.
- Call, but keep it short. Angie would ask David to answer the phone, telling him to say she was in the garden. She often just wasn’t up to talking. A sensitive person will know if their friend wants to talk more or not.
- Call before going for a visit. Even if your friend is usually very communicative, they might not be up to a conversation that day.
- Use open-ended questions such as, “Are you managing OK?” They give the person the option to evade the question, says Eschbach, and give a short answer or to talk about how they feel. If they don’t want to discuss their illness, carry on an ordinary conversation such as you would have before the cancer. Most often the person is happy to be diverted, and to carry on normal relationships.
- Ask if there is something you can help with, such as driving the cancer patient to radiation or chemo treatments, or to appointments. Maybe they could use help with housecleaning. A casserole or some baking for when company comes can be very welcome.
- Give a hug if you know the person well enough, and let them cry if they want to.
- Never tell all the cancer stories you’ve heard about or experienced yourself, unless asked. Especially leave out those stories of Sam who insisted on making that last trip to Mexico and came home in a casket.
- Never avoid the person.
- Never try to persuade the person to try that natural remedy you’ve read about that is so amazing, says Eschbach. Cancer patients are usually bombarded with alternative treatments and it becomes overwhelming. If you feel you have something good to share, ask politely if they would like to hear about it. Give them the option of saying “no” and stop if they do.
- Never force yourself on your friend. Be sensitive. If they are curt on the phone or at the door, tell them you’ll call another time and wish them a good day. This is no time to take offence.
- Never forget the partner or close family members. Angie found David’s cancer diagnoses almost harder to bear than he did. She couldn’t imagine a life without him, and the thought of what his last days could be like filled her with despair. Although she hated the question, “How are you doing?” (she always started crying), knowing people were thinking about her meant a good deal.
- Never use phrases such as, “You’ll be just fine,” “You’ll outlive the rest of us,” or, “You will be healed if you believe,” says Eschbach. Alternatively phrases such as, “Don’t hope too much, it will probably come back,” (while the patient is having a good phase) are equally unwelcome.
- Never act as if you know how they are feeling, unless you yourself were in the same situation. And even then, every person reacts differently.
“The fear of making mistakes shouldn’t stop people from doing something. Knowing people care makes all the difference,” Angie says. There’s no general answer to what is right or wrong. People are different in what they need or how they react. For Eschbach and his wife the best times were with friends who didn’t feel they knew the answers. They were just there for them. To walk a part of the journey with a cancer patient takes the ability to endure tears, sorrow and fear; to bear the withdrawal of your friend, sometimes gruffness or a curt answer.
“It’s important to build up a strong network of friends and family in healthy times,” David says.
*Names changed to protect identity.