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5 Things You Should Know When a Loved One Gets Cancer

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In many ways, my cancer has been harder on the people around me than for myself. I experienced the shock and awe of a stage 4 terminal diagnosis but had to get up and get busy living what’s left of my life. I have stuff to do and significantly less time to get it all done. Everybody else has to pretend to be strong with me since I set up a no-grieving zone around me. I’m not dead yet.

Cancer seems to be everywhere. There’s zero chance you won’t have it around you somewhere; I just hope it isn’t too close. It’s horrible and has a wide impact zone of collateral damage to everybody around ground zero.

Not all cancer endurers react the same way to getting a serious diagnosis, but there are some aspects of this journey that are pretty consistent among people living with any type of it. I hope this list helps you navigate through it with your person.

1. Not all cancers are the same. Its states are varied, and a diagnosis is specific; you almost need a Dummy’s Guide for your person’s cancer to understand what they’re facing. Many cancers are entirely curable now, and others are a death sentence. Try to understand what your loved one has. But above all, know that every person experiences the disease differently. Their doctor may have given them a timeline – remind them it’s almost never correct. Every human is different.

2. Stay the hell off the Internet. Believe me, your person has seen all of it and hyperventilated at every new statistic. The numbers are usually overall outcomes, and they’re not the story your person heard from their doctor. Ask them about that and only that. What Dr. Google has to say doesn’t matter.

3. There will be times your person is not present. They talk and smile or grocery shop or whatever, but for periods of time, they’re swimming in their disease in their minds. They’re tamping down panic and rage and sadness to be able to talk to you. They’re probably better off if you don’t notice. Just be present for them; it gets better again. They also likely don’t care about your holiday plans for next year or other forward thinking happiness. They measure their time and happiness in today; be in that time with them. Share your memories of your relationship together.

4. Who they were before they got sick is who they will be when they have cancer, just strung a little more tightly. If they were an emotional hysteric before, then you will get more of the same during their cancer journey. Pragmatists and tough-minded people will not appreciate your visits with a “Chicken Soup for the Tumor-Ridden Soul” book in hand. If they were the loving sort, they will still be that way but maybe need more of that from you than before. Good gifts for your person would be something from your relationship that’s meaningful, or bland food (nothing that smells too strong) and of course, just your time.

5. Let them forgo the rules of good manners. Start every text, email or phone message with, “You don’t have to respond to this.” In fact, don’t phone; send a note saying, “When you’re up for it, I would love to talk.” They will come to you when they’re strong if they know you’re waiting for their cue. Depending on where they’re at in their treatment, they may be doing just great. But if they just found out and you aren’t immediate family, stand by in the wings. If you are close family, show up and do the dishes.

We cancer patients vary greatly, but you should know that you’re more important to us now than you ever were. We’re terrified almost all of the time. When you choose to take this terrible journey with us, you’re in a sense holding our heart in your hands. Even though we may not show it, we need you to be gentle with it.

Originally published: March 3, 2015
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