“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” – 1 Corinthians 12:27
“Cancer does not have a face until it’s yours or someone you know.” -Anthony Del Monte
Cancer is a mystery illness to a majority of the population. New patients are no stranger to this. Upon diagnosis, I realized I knew next to nothing. Would I need a port for my specific type of chemo? How long is radiation? What I didn’t think to wonder was how it would change the everyday of my life. This blog post is a list of things your family member or friend with cancer may not think to or want to tell you: the good, the bad, and the educational.
1. Cancer is different for everyone
Location, stage or grade, and metastasis all change cancer from one person to the next through treatment and reaction to said treatment. Just because the patient you know has cancer, doesn’t mean they’re going to be getting chemo through a port, sitting in a hospital, like in the movies. I didn’t. Not needing a port implanted, or to drive to Dallas for chemotherapy has been an incredible blessing, but I still get incredibly sick while I’m on my chemo. That said, please do not offer up unsolicited medical advice. We know you are trying to help, and we appreciate that. But just because going to General Hospital and being treated by Doctor Zhivago was the best treatment plan for your second-cousin’s friend’s mother’s uncle, doesn’t mean it’ll work for us. You’ll often just be causing uncertainty to creep in. Unless you are a close friend or family member, your prayers are all we need.
2. Lots of cancer fighters and survivors feel guilt
Many people cannot continue working or living as they did before while undergoing cancer treatment, and often feel guilty for impacting those around us. When I arrived home after my surgery, I required constant supervision, and felt guilt for inconveniencing the sweet women who volunteered to do so. Knowing how expensive my surgery was, I felt guilty when my mother took off work early to drive me to radiation for six weeks. Once we win our battle with cancer, we often feel guilt for surviving, or having it easier than other survivors. Knowing this could help you offer your support if one of your friends is struggling with guilt, even if they don’t offer this up.
3. Staring Isn’t Caring
I understand a quick glance, or a double take when I’m out in public. Chances are, I don’t even notice them. I’m bald. Even today, in 2018, a shaved head is unique, specifically when unaccompanied by tattoos and gauges, which some people rock but I am far too meek for. Along with the notable baldness, some of us may have scars; some of us may look bedraggled and tired. It’s human instinct to take an extended look at someone out of the ordinary. This is, however, no excuse for the wide-eyed gawking we’re sometimes met with. My radiologist mentioned once how losing your hair took away your choice to “be” a cancer patient to an extent. It takes what is otherwise your little secret and turns you into a walking billboard for sickness. Staring strangers, be warned. If I catch you staring, I will stare back until you notice we’re caught in a stare-down. This will likely leave you feeling awkward (“Why is she staring at me??”) and, ultimately, embarrassed (“Oh, crud, she noticed me staring at her!”). I know this is fighting fire with fire, but it’s the only way I’ve found to teach these prying people a lesson and turn an otherwise embarrassing reminder into a devilishly fun moment.
4. Look, Kids!
My boyfriend noticed something was out of the ordinary one day at lunch when I began beaming from ear to ear over his shoulder. Glancing to the booth behind us, he found himself facing a wide-eyed one-year old, absolutely enthralled by me. Or, more specifically, the ‘do I’m rocking. My mother has always been a firm believer in treating others properly: she raised my brother and me not to turn away and ignore someone abnormal. While this is a natural reaction when you see someone clearly out of the ordinary, it often invalidates them as a person and makes them feel invisible. Myself included, many people with physical scars or disabilities prefer you teach your child to treat us as they would any other stranger: look, acknowledge, then look away. Where my opinion may differ from that of others is that I enjoy interaction with children. I am never too busy nor too tired to answer a child’s questions about my cancer or my hair. They are still figuring out how our world works. If speaking with me will give them an understanding they didn’t have before, or just answer their question “Mommy, why is she bald?” then I am more than happy to do so. And whose day wouldn’t be brightened by a chat with a curious toddler?
5. Be Careful with Compliments
Having cancer is like being transformed into a D-list celebrity of the worst kind. It’s like being pregnant in a world where people legal must touch your stomach. What I’m getting at here is the cancer fairy appears and *poofs* away your privacy and personal space when you are in public. Compliments, specifically from strangers, can be double-edged swords. An unknown, unexpected touch on your arm, paired with a sympathetic gaze and a “You look beautiful,” often leave me feeling anything but. Instead, it interrupts my conversation to remind me of my baldness, my cancer, my obvious ailment. If you cannot think of a compliment other than the pitying “you look so good,” please know we receive these compliments sincerely from those around us. My boyfriend won’t breathe without telling me he thinks I am beautiful, because he knows there are moments now when I look in the mirror and disagree. Your prayers are appreciated and felt, regardless of whether you awkwardly tell a stranger they’re pretty and that you’re praying for them or not. If you see or know someone with cancer, and you want to give them a smile, as I often have, evaluate your compliment with this in mind: if you wouldn’t say it to someone without cancer, don’t say it to someone with cancer. Compliments like those we received before our diagnoses give us a sense of normalcy and remind us that we’re the same people we were before all this, not just a cancer patient. There have been days I talked about the Starbucks barista who complimented my brows for hours. Unbeknownst to her, I lost my brows due to radiation, and spent fifteen minutes drawing them in each morning. Compliments about my hair they aren’t cancer specific make me beam. I’m sure it’s obvious, from the bald crown and shining scar this wasn’t my choice, but saying “I love your hair! I wish I was brave enough to go short” makes me forget, for a second, that this wasn’t my choice. (Side note: almost all of these compliments were given to me by Starbucks baristas. You guys are the best!) If you actually know a cancer patient, you can rely on safe go-to’s like: “You look so healthy,” and “You brighten the room.” Beyond that, my rule of thumb is the best way to make someone’s day.
6. Endurance Isn’t Everything
Endurance isn’t everything. And no, I’m not talking about running a 5K. I couldn’t do that before I was seven months into a year-long chemotherapy regimen. Many cancer patients don’t spend much time out of the house. Even if our white blood cell counts aren’t low enough to worry about every germ or puff of dust, we may no longer be able to accompany you to a six-hour day of riding roller coasters in the Summer heat. That said, please don’t stop inviting us to things. We are still your friends and like to feel considered, even if our immediate response is to bail on the outing you planned, or ask if it can be altered. Looking to score points as the best cancer supporter ever? Plan family or friend outings with the patient you know in mind. That isn’t to say you should change your life to accommodate them, but indoor events and limiting outdoor time for planned events ensure you can enjoy their company as long as possible. Planning events that don’t run late into the night, or stray far from the home of the patient, are a relief, and allow them to feel a part of the festivities without overworking themselves.
7. Digestive Issues
Chemo affects everyone differently, but the consensus among most patients and survivors I know is this: our poor gastrointestinal systems. We bounce from nausea to gas to cramping in minutes. When we do eat, that is, when our appetite makes a rare appearance, we must limit ourselves to foods high in the vitamins, fiber and minerals we’re missing from not eating enough. (i.e. healthy food) Chemo can also cause you to develop sudden food intolerances, all of which are temporary. At least, that’s what I tell myself, because a world without ice cream and cheesecake is not a world worth living in. That is, of course, according to my stomach. This in mind, many of us wouldn’t ask that you alter your dinner plans for us, but that you respect our choices. If we only eat two bites, please don’t think we dislike your food or urge us to eat more. We loved your food, we wish we could engorge ourselves more, but our appetites or bodies are advising us otherwise. We’ll get there one day! And when we do, we expect you to take us out for our favorite dessert.
8. Talking About It / Offering Care
Concern for your friends with cancer can be shown in many ways, but often, it’s unclear where the lines of courtesy and privacy are. There is no standard of etiquette when speaking to someone with cancer, but my rule of thumb is as follows. If you have the person’s number of contact information and speak with them regularly, you are welcome to check-in. This is the magic of the technology age. What would be awkward to ask in the aisles of a grocery store can be typed out and sent off, letting the person know you care while giving them an appropriate amount of time to construct a response as caring as you. If you don’t know us well enough to do the above, please check in with someone closer to us. Most cancer patients have a ring of close supporters, family and friends that know them well who organize their outer circle of supporters. My boyfriend is my point of contact, and started a group text with over twenty of our friends to update them on my surgery and treatment. These people are a great resource to get information from or organize help through when it might be difficult for us. If you are close enough to help us, feel free to offer. A specific offer of help goes farther thank a simple one. You are twice as likely to be taken up on “Can I drop off dinner on Tuesday night at 7?” than “Call me if you need anything!” One of the hardest things for cancer patients to learn is to accept help, so offering specific help instead of leaving an open-ended invitation we might feel bad taking you up on is the best thing you can do. Often, the simplest acts of support have a bigger impact than you know. Letters and cards we can look through when our spirits are low are cherished; I still have many of mine hanging in my room. Meals, too, are an incredible blessing to the recipient family. Homemade or ordered from a restaurant, it meant one less thing my mom needed to consider after working an eight-hour school day and a three-hour round-trip drive to radiation, thanks to the kindness of whomever dropped dinner on our doorstep that night. If you wish to visit or drop something off with the patient, we would love to thank you and pray with you. Just ask us or our contact before you pop in! As a chemo patient who spends most of her time at home, having a friend visit with a gift or just to entertain me with their time is the truest gift I receive, within the comfort of my own home.
Whether the help you give those you know who are struggling in their lives, with cancer or otherwise, is through meals, time, or prayers, each moment of it is felt. Cancer is an uphill battle, and not an easy one to win, so we rely heavily on the body of believers we are surrounded by, which reveals itself in the struggle, to hold us to Him and carry us through.