Saturday, December 10, 2011

What to say to the person who has cancer

Well, it's been over a week since my last post, and my hearing distortion hasn't diminished. I've managed to get out with friends, to go hiking, and even to spend time in a restaurant or two, but it's more exhausting than usual. I'm trying to keep calm - this could still go away. But it's very, very weird that an integral part of my perceptual system is on the fritz.

My onco-nurse has now assured me TWICE that it's not brain metastasis, which had me jumping for joy every time. And not just jumping, but cleaning the house, planning for the future, repotting the plant, spray-painting things so that they're color-coordinated with the decor in the bedroo- okay, maybe I'm feeling the steroids.

I've been meaning to write a post about how to interact with a friend who has cancer. A few people have asked for a post like this, and while I'm not an expert, I can offer a few tips based on my experiences. Here's a handy bullet-point list!

  • The most important thing I've learned is that you need to keep treating your friend like they're the same person they were before their cells went haywire. Cancer can threaten every single part of a person's identity, from big things like physical appearance, job, future, relationships, and emotional well-being, to little things like the sense of taste and amount of armpit hair. By talking and visiting, you help remind a cancer patient to be who they are.

  • Seriously, just talk. I'm sure people were worried about saying the right things with me; I worry about saying the right things with my friends who have cancer. But the overwhelming majority of these interactions have been loving, humorous, and right on the mark. So don't be afraid to be open and honest with your friend; I mean, what's the worst that could happen? (Cancer?)

  • Let your friend lead. Some people want to talk about their cancer in-depth; some people just want to joke around; some people want to share epiphanies (don't worry, the epiphany phase is transient). Don't feel like your friend needs to talk about every aspect, but make it clear that they can if they want (and if you're fine with it, because you have to take care of yourself, too).

  • Unless your friend asks for medical advice, and unless you're an oncologist, offering medical advice can make your friend's experience confusing. I guarantee that your friend already has a ginormous folder full of information that people spend years in medical school memorizing and understanding. I too have a massive urge to help when things go wrong, but it's easy to give a cancer patient too much info, or to be repetitive. Your friend is now an expert in something that he or she never really wanted to know about.

  • Don't tell your friend that having a positive attitude is a critical factor for their recovery. I'm hesitant to put this here because "Stay positive" is always said with such kindness and sincerity, and I appreciate hearing things like "Keep on truckin'!" and "You're kicking butt!". But urging someone to stay upbeat as a curative agent puts a lot of unfair pressure on a patient. As cancer doc and author Siddhartha Muhckerjee says,

    A woman with breast cancer already has her plate full, and you want to go and tell her that the reason you're not getting better is because you're not thinking positively? Put yourself in that woman's position and think what it feels like to be told your attitude is to blame for why you're not getting better... In a spiritual sense, a positive attitude may help you get through chemotherapy and surgery and radiation and what have you. But a positive mental attitude does not cure cancer – any more than a negative mental attitude causes cancer.

  • Try not to compare your friend's experience to the experience of someone you know who died. Many people survive cancer these days, and unless your friend is immediately terminal and wanting to discuss this, he or she is hoping to survive, too. Luckily I've only had strangers make this kind of comparison, but it was still upsetting. At one point a complete stranger sent me a facebook message out of the blue when he saw a picture of my bald head on someone else's facebook page. He wrote "My friend had cancer and died from it, and it was awful, so I hate cancer, so I'm on your side!" At the time I was deeply sick and unable to reply, but I really, really wish I could've sent vomit in a facebook message.

  • Little things mean so much. Postcards, presents, company during chemo, patience when side effects interrupt plans to hang out. These things helped so so much.

  • But don't worry or overthink things; pretty much just talk to your friend and you are going to do fine. You might make some mistakes, but so will your friend. Your cancer patient friend knows that cancer is scary for other people, too, and appreciates your bravery, patience, love, humor and presence more than you can know.
There's so much more I could write, but I'm tired and there's some chocolate-flavored tea calling my name in dulcet (but distorted) tones.