A friend of a very close friend was just diagnosed. I am purposefully being vague, as it is not my story to tell. Anyway, in speaking to my very close friend, I told her from the get go “Do not tell her to be strong”. There is a method to my madness (HA!), and I shall explain. So, for your reading pleasure, here is my official “Things not to say to someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer”:
1. Thou shall not tell them to be strong. The very LAST thing a person feels after a diagnosis of cancer is strong. They feel vulnerable, violated, betrayed, scared, worried, none of these things are strong. Hearing you have cancer is like getting slapped in the face, while being punched in the gut, followed by being kicked in the naughty bits.
2. Thou shall not say “you will beat this”. This is only because they don’t know. When you are stunned by the diagnosis, you have no clue what you are up against. The diagnosee wants to believe this, but they need prognosis and facts and just a little time to have their come to Jesus moment before they get to “oh fuck yeah, I got this”.
3. Thou shall not say “I had a (insert person here) who died from cancer”. This is just a dick move. Do you know ANYONE who doesn’t know someone who has died from cancer? Trust me, your mortality is on the forefront of your mind. Similarly….
4. Thou shall not say “I know a person who had that, it isn’t a big deal”. First of all, fuck you, you insensitive bitch. (can you tell that someone actually said both of these things to me?) That person you know is not me. Cancer is not an equal opportunity destroyer. Cancer works differently in all people.
5. Thou shall not say you are going to die. Again, dick move. It takes a special kind of asshole to say this.
6. Thou shall not say don’t freak out about it. Oh, ok! My doctor just told me that I have a disease that claims millions of people a year. You’re right, it’s cool. There is little to do BUT freak out. I spent HOURS crying on my husbands chest when I thought about it. You tend to think the worst – you envision hours in the hospital, chemotherapy, radiation, losing your hair…
7. Thou shall not say “God never gives you more than you can handle”. Now, before I get hate mail, hear me out. When you first find out and someone says this (to me anyway), my thought was “So God thought it’d be cool to serve me a heaping helping of cancer?”. Not everyone on this planet is as mental as I, but, just don’t say it.
You read this list and think “who would say these things?”. The answer is – a lot of people. I, at 40 years of age, still tend to be socially awkward and just blurt “I have cancer” at very inopportune times. So, I am not shocked at the range of reactions I have gotten. I won’t tell you that I haven’t blurted it out just to deal a little shock to strangers, because I have. Especially right after my double mastectomy when complete strangers would come up to me and say “awww, when are you due?” because I had no breasts, my gut stuck out and I indeed looked pregnant.
So, on the other side of the coin, the following is a list of things you should do:
1. Give them time and space to feel what they are going to feel. There is nothing you can do or say, you have to let them go through it.
2. Let the person read about their disease on their own. Sometimes, the internet can be your worst enemy. In this day and age, this is what we reference.
3. Be there to listen. Shut your trap, and let them talk.
4. Be a shoulder to cry on. Even if your friend doesn’t turn to you, let them know you are willing to.
5. If that person calls you at midnight, pick up the phone. I know nothing is worse than getting a call in the middle of the night, but cancer has no schedule, neither do your emotions.
6. Offer to make an easy, freezable dinner. The last thing you want to attempt is to cook. It’s also one less thing for your friend to worry about.
This is especially for the newly diagnosed friend of a friend, who we will name “A”: There are so many more things I could go on about saying and not saying. Not all people will care enough to be thoughtful, reasonable people who take the time to think, and that’s ok. Some people just don’t like you, and that’s ok too. It’s those people who show their true colors at a time like this. When they do, it’s just an open invitation to yourself to cut them out of your life. When you are diagnosed, you realize the your time has come to think about the hard stuff. True friends will go out of their way to help you. Even though I don’t know you, we now share the same battle trench, so I am your comrade in arms. Our mutual friend can give you all my contact information.
Love and light – Jen