It is likely fair to assume that everyone who has ever loved somebody who was diagnosed with Cancer, was emotionally devastated by the news. Learning that somebody you love has Cancer is shocking, heartbreaking, and intensely frightening. And knowing how to be supportive and loving without making things emotionally more difficult on the one who is ill, can be very tricky. Nobody handles it perfectly, but for those who have to handle it, here are some suggestions to help you find your footing so that you can be the best resource you can be for your loved one.
KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DEALING WITH
There are as many ways to handle the news of a loved one’s Cancer diagnosis, as there are different types of Cancer and stages of Cancer. Why? Because in some cases, the diagnosis is less threatening than in other cases. For instance, my father has had to be treated for Prostate Cancer twice in the last four years. Although the word Cancer is scary, in my Dad’s case, we knew upfront that it was very unlikely to become life threatening. This is because his Cancer was considered to be slow growing, only in stage one, and highly treatable with a very good chance of total success. It was clear that he was concerned, and shaken by the Cancer diagnosis, but he wasn’t devastated or really in fear of losing his life.
In this kind of case, it isn’t quite so tricky to understand how to be of help to the one who is ill. Always being available to talk and listen, offering rides to and from appointments and treatments, helping with meals, housework, etc., are all good ways to assist someone in this situation. Searching for and providing any informational literature on their condition can be helpful, too. It might really eliminate some of the stress for the Cancer patient to offer to make phone calls to insurance companies and doctors offices when needed, as well.
In sharp contrast, my cousin was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma about two years ago. This was a much different situation. She is young, the mother of two young children, and the last person I would have ever expected to be diagnosed with Cancer, particularly at such a late stage. Her Cancer was far more serious than my Dad’s had been, and I was at an absolute loss for how to be of any use to her at all. Her life was at stake, and she was absolutely terrified and devastated, as was her family.
In this kind of case, it can be absolutely impossible to know what to say, what not to say, or how to offer any kind of relevant help. In my case, I was scared to even talk to my cousin, who is more like a sister to me, because I was so worried that I would say the wrong things and somehow make her feel worse or more frightened than she already did. For the first several months of her ordeal, I didn’t talk to her over the phone at all. I tried a couple of times, but started sobbing before I even had all of the numbers dialed, and hung up the phone of course, not wanting to put her in a position of having to be strong for me.
Finding yourself in a situation of not being able to stay composed long enough to speak with the person who is dealing with Cancer, as I did, may or may not be an obstacle for you. If it is, it is still important to offer whatever support that you can. For me, this meant writing a couple of letters to my cousin explaining that I was not ignoring the fact that she was ill, I was just very scared of saying the wrong things. Then I poured my heart out, and apologized in the letters in case I had said anything I shouldn’t have. I may not have handled it perfectly, but I handled it the only way I could think of, without feeling as though I had burdened her further. Just because your loved one is ill, doesn’t mean they won’t understand that you don’t know exactly what to do or say at this time.
FIND OUT IF THERE ARE PRACTICAL WAYS TO HELP
If you live close enough, this can mean providing meals for the family. My nieces did this for my cousin. All the housework help or childcare you can offer will likely be greatly needed and much appreciated, too. If appropriate, offer rides to and from treatments and doctors appointments. Even if you are too emotionally distraught to say much, just being present is better than nothing.
In our case, most of my family lived quite far away from my cousin and was unable to offer any of these forms of support. Instead, we sent cards, letters, and flowers. Those who were able to maintain composure on the phone called her to offer words of love and support. At one point, different family members went out and purchased pillowcases to send to her, as we were told that she would need several due to the necessity to provide clean bedding so often during the months that she was undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
DO THE BEST YOU CAN
Navigating through the months that your loved one is fighting Cancer can be terrifying and heartbreaking. Do the best that you can to offer every act of love, support, care, strength, and practical help that you can. You may not feel later that you handled it perfectly, I certainly don’t. But you will know that you offered the best that you were capable of.