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  • Writer's pictureTanya Louise

Health: How to talk to someone with Cancer

A person with Cancer is still a person... so the ad goes, and of course it's true, but how do you talk to someone with Cancer.

In short the answer is; the same as you always did.  You may bite your tongue now and again but the last thing they want is you acting all weird around them, enough has changed in their world without you changing the way you are around them too. As the latest statistics show that one in two of us will now get the disease, knowing what and what not to say has never been more important.

One of the things that upset me was the lack of communication from people I had worked with for years.  From the day I went off work to have my operation, I didn't hear a thing from many. It hurt.  During the later stages of my treatment I called in and was surprised to be met with hugs.  It emerged they hadn't known what to say.  Get well soon seemed wrong considering the circumstances and people worry about asking how you are in case its bad news, and so they put it off and the longer they put it off, the harder it became.

My advice would be - talk to them - just talk, of course there will be the elephant in the room but you will find that if they want to talk about it they will  - they might even need to talk about it, it's amazing how many people to disappear when you need them the most because they can't cope with the situation, so they may well need a friend and a listening ear. By the same token, they might not want to talk about it, they might want a break from being the ill person and be as they were 'before', but if you don't know what to say, just tell them.  Personally I'd have preferred somebody saying to me 'I don't know what to say' rather than not hearing from them at all.

Cancer changes your outlook on life, so be prepared that they may want to do something which doesn't seem the norm for them; watching the sunset, kicking through the leaves - things that happen all the time that we see but we don't really 'see'.  The same goes for things that they talk about - you may suddenly find that they want to talk about life.  For the person with Cancer, you may start to forget what 'normal' is as your life revolves around hospital appointments and treatment.  Do something with them that makes them feel a bit like their old self. They will never be the same person they were before mentally but some normality in their new world may be welcome.  I only told those closest to me.  I never mentioned it on social media at the time and that normality helped me.

Do you offer to help?  You don't want to make them feel they can't or won't cope, so what's the right thing to do?  "I'm here if you need me" is a great starter but consider their pride.  They say they're fine (don't we all) but they may be trying to cope or too proud to ask for help.  Asking specific things can be more helpful, such as "Do you need a lift to chemo?'  or 'Would you like me to go with you to your appointment?" Try and put yourself in their place if you can.  What would you want to hear.  Practice empathy.

Be prepared for a mixture of emotions.  It won't be easy for you either, watching someone you love going through this.  Be prepared for tears one minute, laughter or anger the next.  They will be going on a rollercoaster of emotions.

It's natural to be scared of saying the wrong thing.  Try not to overthink what you're saying though either, likelihood is they'll be craving normality not stilted conversation.  Rather than saying 'How are you?' which can be seen as thoughtless, saying 'How are you feeling?'is much more caring and gives them the option if they want to talk about treatment and illness they can or they can talk about something else. Steer away from giving medical advice though unless you are 100% sure it is accurate.  Leave that to the professionals.

Practise the art of listening  and you may well find you understand much better what they do and don't want to talk about, and whatever you do, maintain eye contact.  Looking around or being distracted can make someone feel unimportant at the best of times.  Let them understand that you are there for them. Do you talk about the future?  Now theres a question, and I think wholly it depends on the diagnosis. In my personal situation I wanted people to remain positive.  I wanted to hear and talk about things to look forward to, I wanted to feel that it would be ok one day and life goes on.

At the end of the day, whatever the person is going through, life goes on around them. It's hard for them of course.  I remember going shopping one day after my diagnosis and thinking how weird it was that people were all going about their business.  Didn't they know I could be dying?

Of course they didn't, life was going on for them, they were worrying about trivialities such as what to have for tea or the cost of butter.  However, I came to get used to it.  Apply this to your conversation.  Talk about things going on in the now.

Never take away their hope and be careful talking about someone who has had cancer.  There are many different types and their story is unique to them and for Gods sake, if you do, make sure the person didn't die. You do get it.  It still hurts after treatment is over. I was doing a sponsored walk for Maggie's charity the year following my treatment, my hair was still short and a lady asked me if I'd had cancer - I told her I had and she went on to tell me how they were walking in memory of someone who had had the same cancer but they were now dead.

Finally, you don't have to talk.  If there are no words - just be there for them.  Just having someone in the same room, knowing they're not alone, can be comforting.

Love Txx



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