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9 Important Cancer Etiquette Tips You Need to Know

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Because I am a survivor, I’m often asked about the underbelly of cancer patient etiquette. Everyone wants to know the best way to support a loved one who has received a diagnosis. I compiled this list based on my own experience and then consulted with a few of my cancery friends to be sure I wasn’t completely alone in my thinking. They all wrote back with capital letters “YES,” and then added a few thoughts of their own. Please know that not everything listed below will apply to everyone going through cancer. We all handle trauma differently and ultimately, it’s important to follow your loved one’s lead.

So here it is. I hope it helps. And please feel free to pass it along!

Someone you know just got diagnosed with cancer. Here are some things we want you to understand:

1. If you’re wondering if you should reach out because we haven’t spoken since high school or we just met last month, the answer is yes. A simple, open-ended, heartfelt message — without the expectation of a response — is the way to go. When we hear from you, it takes the fearful life-threatening disease out of our forefront, and replaces it with loving, connected humanness. The fact that someone else is thinking of us, has felt something for us and has taken time out of their day to write us is an honor that we hope you never have to feel. Thank you. We love you.

2. We know you want to relate. But we only want to hear about your friends and family members who have survived cancer. Please, please, please — especially if we have just been diagnosed — don’t tell us that our situation reminds you, in any way, of someone who has passed away. We won’t even hear the details of their lives because we will be so hyper-focused on dead that we can’t follow along. We want to honor your lost loved ones and bring them back to life through storytelling and memories, but not right now. Thank you. We love you.

3. If you sent money, a gift or a meal — it was received. We are beyond grateful and we are often-times humbled to the point of tears. The gratitude we feel from having the support of others is immense with a capital “I.” We have read your names, thanked God for your place in our lives, transferred your hard-earned money into our bank accounts, put on the cozy socks you picked out for us, filled your handmade mug with tea and watched our significant other eat your meal because for some of us, food is no longer part of our day. We feel deeply indebted to you but we cannot be held accountable to send a thank-you note. We can’t even send a thank-you text. Not even a prayer-hands emoji. Because we are fighting for our lives.

Please do not take this personally. Our mothers raised us with manners. But we have cancer – we are a mess. We’re just getting by day-by-day and a thank-you note can’t be put on our already overloaded emotional and physical agenda. Thank you. We love you.

4. We know you want to see us. We want to see you, too — when we feel better. Because right now some of us are sweating through our fourth set of sheets, scraping yeasty thrush out of our mouths with tissues that we will throw on the floor or sitting on the toilet with diarrhea while moaning loudly to help keep the nausea at bay. We smell bad and we are in physical pain. This isn’t an ideal time to knock on the door. If you’re thoughtfully bringing something for us like a gift or a meal, please leave it outside on our doorstep. You can text us later to tell us that it’s there. Thank you so much. We love you.

5. We appreciate all of the ways you want to support us spiritually, religiously and energetically. But, please be mindful of our personal beliefs and don’t use this scary-as-hell time in our lives as an opportunity to convert us to whatever it is that you believe. You are more than welcome to pray for us, set up altars for us or whatever is meaningful to you — but please keep those things to yourself unless you’re sure they’re in line with our beliefs. If we are religious, send love, Bible verses and prayers. If we are Spiritual, send love, healing, and positive energy. If we live our lives outside the realm of God, then please don’t put your beliefs on us — send love. Thank you. We love you.

6. If you’re looking for a way to help us, be deliberate. We can’t tell you how many amazing people have sent us “What can we do for you?” questions that are well-meaning, but we never really know how to reply because we don’t know how much you really want to do. Aside from meals and money, our most helpful moments have come from friends who have texted from the grocery store to ask what we need in our cabinets and fridge. You can always send Amazon gift cards or an “I have $100 and I’m placing an Amazon order for you — what can I put in the cart?” text. Some of us have benefited from friends coming over (while we’re at the hospital) to take our trash to the dump, clean our bathrooms or fix our steps. If you don’t have the time to give, but you’re still looking for something unique to do for us, consider hiring a cleaning or laundry service. That saves our souls. Thank you. We love you.

7. If you are outside of our immediate family, and you need to talk about how our cancer is affecting you, please talk to someone else. We want you to be able to express your feelings and fears. We realize that our cancer is causing a lot of discomfort, sadness and anxiety. We actually feel guilty about that. But we can’t listen to your discomfort, sadness and anxiety because our own fears are at a heightened level similar to a state of emergency. Our bodies are under a crazy amount of pressure and our minds are just.barely.keeping.up. We don’t have the space to hold your grief. You may see it as selfish, but it is survival to us. Tell us you love us. Tell us funny stories or just “normal” stories. But please don’t tell us how badly we’ve hurt you. We can’t handle it right now. Thank you. We love you.

8. We’re going to change. Some of us are going to be just sliiiightly different, and some of us will be barely recognizable. Most of us will set boundaries because it is instinctual and animalistic. We are trying not to die, so we are clearing and protecting. If you can give us the space and permission to make these adjustments, chances are we will have a stronger relationship once we’re out of the weeds. Please don’t take our survival as a slight towards you. Please don’t take our growth as egotistical. Thank you. We love you.

9. If by the grace of everything good and holy in this world, we get to be one of the ones who receives a clear scan, a clean bill of health or a blood test that comes back with magical numbers that mean the cancer is gone, we will be giddy and overwhelmingly gracious, but it will take a long time for us to believe it. And not because we are Debbie Downers always looking at the negative side of the coin — but because we have just gone through hell and back and we have lost friends who have also traveled this path, and we are so unsure of everything in this world right now. Basically, we want to kiss the ground we walk on and never get up for fear that the cancer will find us if we stand too tall. But. We know we don’t want to live in fear for the rest of our lives because we have just been hit with this magical stick of mortality and it has forever changed us. We need time to stand back up. We need time to celebrate the scan. We’re weary. But we are full of grit and we will get there with you. So, if we aren’t diving headfirst into the cake or swimming in the champagne, don’t be offended. Just give us a hug because we love you so much. Thank you for loving us.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

This story originally appeared on

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.
Originally published: December 29, 2019
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