According to the American Cancer Society, there will be an estimated 1,735,350 newly diagnosed cases of cancer in 2018. That number is mind blowing and unfortunately, rising. However, this is not just a number. Each number represents a life, a family, a community, that will never be the same again.
Chances are you or someone you love has been deeply affected by cancer. Learning how to dance in the midst of the cancer tension with those that we love is hard. Having the desire and heart to help is the easy part. The difficulty comes regarding the “how to” help. Cancer is complicated. People are different. There is no “one size fits all” approach to walking with someone through a cancer diagnosis and beyond.
When my mom was diagnosed with Glioblastoma brain cancer in 2014, it hit our family like a tsunami tidal wave. We did not know which way was up and we certainly could not tell you what kind of need(s) we had. Surviving the moment was overwhelming and pushed our limits. We were wrapped tightly in love by family and friends and surrounded by a multitude of generous hearts that wanted to serve our family but the question of “how?” remained.
Cancer is scary and complex. There is no instruction manual or easy to follow checklist of how to love someone well through cancer. There is no simple solution and we are certainly not born knowing exactly what to do or say. Cancer is uncomfortable for the person and for those surrounding them. Becoming a caregiver has not made me an expert but it has given me some valuable insights that I would love to share with you, in hopes it will equip you to go out and confidently serve those affected by cancer and to help you love them in BIG ways without feeling awkward or afraid.
How to Put Love and Service into Action During Cancer
- Be specific in your offerings to help and serve. I cannot tell you how many times I heard someone say, “Let me know if you need anything” or “tell me if I can help.” Before you think I’m an ungrateful jerk, please hear my heart. I know that these sentiments were love offerings in the moment and probably the best they had to offer at the time. However, open-ended, vague offerings felt burdensome and became more stress inducing than stress relieving. Tailor your approach to your loved one, be practical and specific. Most importantly, always follow through. Accepting help is difficult for many people. Sometimes pride gets in the way of accepting the need for assistance and often times, families are still grieving the diagnosis and coming to terms with the new “normal” is an arduous process. Coming to the realization that we can’t do everything on our own is a tough pill to swallow. Next time a need arises, consider saying, “I would like to bring you dinner this Thursday. What is your pleasure? Or, if cooking is not your jam, try this on for size, “I work during the day so I am not available to drive you to treatments but I can come over on Saturday morning and help with the laundry and cleaning.” Be creative and be flexible. If you find yourself at a loss for a specific offering, ask “What is the best way I can support you at this time?”
- Give the gift of presence, not platitudes. Fight the urge to fill the air with empty words. Your physical presence and gentle touch is a gift. Holding space with someone you love in and through cancer is sacred. Think before you speak. Your words carry power and have the ability to build up or tear down someone’s spirit. Being on the receiving end of cancer care, I have experienced the blessing of words and I have also had my heart broken by well-intended platitudes. Trust me, I have been both the giver and the receiver of those ever popular phrases such as “I know how you feel” or “Everything happens for a reason.” We will save empathetic dialogue for another conversation! Be yourself and above all else, it is ok (and welcomed) to just be honest. I can only speak for my family but hearing “I’m sorry. I don’t what to say,” was music to my ears. When in doubt, just SHOW UP and LOVE your people well.
- Acknowledge & Affirm: Avoid commenting on physical appearance or pointing out physical changes, even positive ones. Focus on the person, not the disease. Use affirming statements like “It is great to see you” or “I love spending time with you,” and “I was looking forward to our visit today.” Don’t avoid the hard or pretend that it doesn’t exist but fight the urge to bring cancer and its effects into every conversation.
- Give permission to your loved one to express their honest feelings. Cancer is mentally and physically exhausting. The days of cancer are littered with tough times, ugly moments and good days. The tides turn fast and sometimes without warning. Be ready and flexible. Seek to understand your loved one. Please do not try to dictate their feelings. Resist the temptation to cut off the conversation when it gets hard or sad and for the love of all things holy, PLEASE DO NOT hijack the conversation by “trying” to relate or telling them “you know how they feel.” It is always best to take verbal and non-verbal cues from your loved one. Sometimes, it is the things that go “unsaid” that speak the loudest. Avoid talking about your junk or complaining. Try never to put your loved one in a position to have to comfort you. Only ask questions you genuinely want to know the answers to and be prepared for HARD answers. Remember, this time is not about you. It is all about the person that you love. Give them permission to be themselves and to experience their true feelings (the good, bad and the really ugly ones). Never judge a person’s feelings. Do your best to validate them and ensure a safe and secure space to just be in the moment, whatever that looks like.
- Remember your loved one has cancer. It is not their identity. A cancer diagnosis can be isolating. Do your best not to allow the disease to define or negatively affect your relationship. Cancer does change circumstances and people but change does not always have to be “bad.” New normals are a real part of this cancer journey but they are also an integral part of life outside of cancer. Commit to loving your people instead of running away or distancing yourself when things get difficult or uncomfortable. Showing up with honesty is always better than running and saying nothing at all. Loved ones with cancer cannot escape the disease in their bodies but they can still participate in conversation and in life. Be intentional about including your loved ones. Ask questions and illicit their opinions, just like you did before they had cancer. Make plans and give them something to look forward to. Have conversation about common interests, hobbies or family. Do not make cancer the focus of every conversation. Loving someone with cancer is not easy but try imagining how it feels to be the one with cancer. Empathy changes everything.
- Be consistent. Cancer is a rollercoaster ride with enough of its own unpredictability. Commit to being there during the highs, lows and in betweens. Be creative and find different ways to show up and give the gift of your presence. A cancer diagnosis is a marathon, not a sprint. When someone you love hears the words, “You have cancer” make the decision to keep showing up and let them know that you are going to loving them through, for
All of our lives are littered with bumps, bruises and detours whether you are walking along the brain cancer road or you are living in the midst of some other HARD season. Learn how to love your people in big and small ways, in the deep trenches and through the torrential down pours of life. Commit to showing up, even when it gets hard and sad and everything inside you screams for you to run away. Resist the urge to run. Stay and figure out how to dance in the rain…together.