Breast Cancer Conversation 101: How To Help, Communicate With And Be Strong For Your Loved One Through Their Battle
CLICK HERE TO SEE THE INFOGRAPHIC IN FULL SCREEN MODE OR TO EMBED ON YOUR BLOG. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, I felt like I had magically sprouted a unicorn horn from my forehead because instantly everyone I interacted with started to get really weird around me. Co-workers looked at me funny. My family members would start spontaneously crying in public. My phone stopped ringing and my party pals were nowhere to be found. I can’t help but think, if they knew what to say to me at that time, things might have gone a bit smoother for all of us.
So what’s the real deal when talking to a person that has just been diagnosed with cancer? Let me give you a glimpse of what I think you (as a friend, lover, relative, or co-worker) should know when someone in your life has been diagnosed with the “C” word.
STOP THINKING AND OBSESSING. First things, first, you need to stop thinking and obsessing. You are not going to say anything wrong. You simply aren’t. When in doubt, follow the golden rule of treating others how you would like to be treated. True, you have never been in this situation before, but neither has your friend. You will be navigating these unchartered waters together. If you curse like a sailor don’t get all Mother Teresa (on your friend) all of the sudden saying more Hail Mary’s than Mary herself. Be authentic with your interaction and stay true to yourself and your friendship.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR OWN EMOTIONS FIRST. Before you pick up the phone or go over to their house for the first time (after they have been diagnosed with cancer) take time to notice and acknowledge your own emotions first. This will help you be mindful of their emotions and the situation at hand. Don’t forget to dress awesome. If you plan to visit face-to-face put in some effort to look nice and shine by wearing some bright uplifting colors. You can enhance your own mood and their mood too.
BE PRESENT. Don’t forget to power off your cellphone and make eye contact. If you want to be there for your friend, commit to being there. Do you seriously need to Instagram a photo of this? Maybe not. And if you are making a phone call, be sure to turn off the tv and remove any distractions. Work on being a good listener. Make a conscious effort to hear and pay attention to what your friend is saying. Are they expressing a NEED for something? Listen more than you speak. They might tell you things that are hard to hear but respect their feelings and choices. People react in different ways. If your friend cries and you want to cry too, go for it. Feeling emotions is important. No need to put on a front.
KEEP THINGS SIMPLE & FOLLOW THEIR LEAD. Be honest, specific, and direct with your friend. It is totally okay to say, “I’m at a loss for words” or to be curious and ask questions but really pay close attention to non-verbal cues (body language). Maybe they don’t want to talk about cancer at all. Follow their lead.
GET CLEAR ON WHAT YOU CAN OFFER NOW. What do you enjoy doing? Is your gift an emotional outlet, latte sipping friend-time, a pre-surgery fashion consult, eyebrow or make up sessions, a little fitness help, legal expertise, concert buddy, patient advocacy, craft time, financial helper, stress reduction hippy dates, or do you love to cook? Use these as clues as to what you can offer, right now. Maybe you know your friend loves “me” time. You can honor that by offering to babysit on a certain day. If you love to be online maybe you can offer to take charge of updates on support boards like lotsahelpinghands.org and caringbridge.org. Your friend will appreciate the help. Whatever you decide to do, do not disappear. Sending occasional emails, Facebook messages, or cards to let them know you are thinking of them is awesome.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO REACH OUT. I think it is natural to be afraid of the unknown. Occasionally I will receive calls, emails and texts that go something to the effect of,” a friend of a friend was just diagnosed with breast cancer. OMG, I don’t know what to say. Help, please!” I consider it a good sign when someone reaches out to me prior to making contact because it means they care for this person and they want tools to make the process easier on themselves and their friend. I know I said you aren’t going to say anything wrong and that is because I’m gonna tell you all the F#@ked up things that should not be said to a newly diagnosed person. To me it seems obvious but here are a few things to please not say.
"YOU HAVE TO BE POSITIVE" Ummm…NO! Get real. You don’t need to be positive 100% of the time. It is much healthier to actually feel any emotions and feelings that arise than to put on a happy face when you are sad, anxious, angry, or worried.
"I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL." Uh uh. No you don’t. My life just changed forever. I have cancer and now I have my cute healthy friend saying she knows exactly how I feel. I think not.
"WHEATGREASS ENEMAS CURE CANCER." You may have researched alternative therapies for your friend but you need to resist saying or emailing every thing you read about. Remember you want to support your friend’s decisions. Questioning her choices or being disapproving can be a friendship ender.
"TAKE A WHIFF OF MY NEW PERFUME." The conversation should be about your friend, not about you. Skip the perfume or cologne. Not only is Fragrance bad for you, it is bad for your friend too. If she has started chemotherapy, she might be sensitive to scents.
"I HAD AN AUNT/GRANDMA WHO DIED OF THAT." Oh geeze. And how is this info helpful or inspiring to your friend? Better left unsaid.
"NONE OF US EVER KNOWS WHEN WE ARE GONNA DIE." No, duh! Steer clear of any general sayings especially ones involving death or being hit by a bus. Yuck.
"BREAST CANCER ISN'T AS BAD AS ______ CANCER" OR "STAGE 1 BREAST CANCER ISN'T NEARLY AS BAD AS STAGE 2." This adds guilt and this weird cancer hierarchy.
GOD WILL TAKE CARE OF EVERYTHING. Spiritual comfort is helpful to some but might be culturally insensitive, irritating, or too personal for others.
"YOU ARE SO DRAMATIC. AREN'T YOU DONE WITH CANCER, YET?" Really? No, it is kinda a big deal. Give them time. Keep in mind healing (emotionally, physically, spiritually) with lingering side effects there is a 2 year minimum for most folks.
For great info on how to help if someone you loved has been diagnosed with cancer, check out The Best Friend's Guide to Breast Cancer: What to Do if Your Bosom Buddy or Loved One is Diagnosed by Sonja Faulkner.
And lastly this little unicorn advises, not to provide advice unless you are asked for it. Thank goodness you actually asked for these tips! Hope you find them useful.
XOXO Miss Nixon