Monday, 31 October 2011

5 Things to do for a Cancer Patient...

Somewhere back in time I promised to write an antidote to my semi-rant about things not to say to a cancer patient. Well, that time has come. I wanted to write about the things that you should say to someone with cancer but after thinking about it, I realised that I'm not really a 'should of' kind of person. By this, I mean that something doesn't suddenly happen when you get diagnosed with the big C. You don't suddenly turn into the same kind of person as Reg sitting opposite you who was diagnosed with bowel cancer last month. Maybe Reg really likes it when people give him a hug every time they see him and ask him how he's feeling. This doesn't mean that I will. To state the bleeding obvious as usual... my point is that we're all different. And just because I've been diagnosed with cancer, it doesn't mean that I've suddenly become all homogenous. So, following on from this logic, I'm thinking that instead of telling you what to say perhaps I could just suggest how to act, based on how other people have acted towards me. To all my fellow cancer buddies who read these suggestions and disagree, please feel free to contradict me. In my pre-cancer life I loved a heated debate. Four months of hardcore chemo has kind of robbed me of that vital energy needed to disagree and then construct an even better argument in response, but I'm still the same 'ole cantankerous me underneath it all. So, are you ready ?

Five Things To Do For a Cancer Patient 

Offer Specific Help  
Are you an expert cook, love to drive or a brilliant cake maker ?  Do you have a special knowledge about nutrition, masage or reiki ? Can you knit, sew or make fabulous home-made cards ? Y'see, to date, I've had a cake especially made for me by someone I never knew could bake, a compilation of chill-out music put together for me by a friend who loves music, a couple of wigs bought for me by friends who love grooming, some software uploaded onto my computer by a friend who's a computer geek, jewellery made for me by someone who does it as a hobby and i've been referred to an expert acupuncturist by an osteopath friend. All of this from peeps with special talents or knowledge that I knew nothing about. As anyone will tell you who's ever had a really delicious meal cooked for them, there's really nothing better than receiving something that's been made or created especially with you in mind. Nothing. No amount of cash or lottery wins can ever trump this. If there is a better way to say 'I really care about you', please let me know what I've been missing. 

The key is to think about what you do really well. Then do it for the person that you care about. And it doesn't have to be a craft. Maybe you love hanging out with kids. Or are happy to do a bit of cleaning. When you have cancer, the last thing you really want to do is ask someone for help. Why ? Well, for most of us our self-esteem is already kind of low. We've been told that we've got this horrible disease that no-one else wants and we have no idea how the hell we got it. We just know that everyone else looks healthy and we're not. We blame ourselves for all those burgers and fries that we gobbled down in our teenage years. We wish that we'd eaten less dairy products. We wondered whether we should have eaten more veg and spent less time vegging out on the sofa. We're also usually experiencing too much trauma to think about whether you might be better emptying the bins or picking up some shopping. In short, we're not in control even if we look as though we might be. So do something and don't worry whether the person doesn't appreciate it at first. In time they will. 

Act Normally  
I know it's hard. One day you had a friend who did all the things that you did, the next you're sitting next to a person who's telling you that they've been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. All kinds of stuff is going through your head - like maybe it could happen to you one day. As the evolutionary psychologists keep reminding us, we may have abandoned the savannahs for cosy nights in front of the tv but you just can't take the homo erectus out of the human. So when we're faced with a threat what do we do ? Yep, it's flight or fight time. Well sadly they'll always be some folks who'll just take the opportunity to beat a hasty retreat. The experience is just too close to home and way too frightening and they'd rather keep a safe distance with the justification that really they don't what to say or do. But for others with a bit more balls and common sense, your friend with the tumour might just want a bit of your humour and to be reminded that she existed as a person long before her journey into Cancerland. 

Tell her that you're thinking of her 
I know that this isn't everyone's cup of tea but to be honest, I love hearing these words. Even if it's just a short text, or an e-mail sent in a hurry. It always makes me feel much less alone and much more connected to the person who sent it, even if they are thousands of miles from me. I once received an e-mail from a friend who was sitting on a train on the way to Rome. He told me that he just wanted to let me know that he was thinking of me. At the time I was lying on my sofa, tired and achy from my cocktail of chemo and herceptin. It opened up the space for me to tell him how I was feeling and made feel less isolated. For me, it was important to know that people cared. And yes, I know that my partner and my mum and my sisters and my dad and a handful of good friends and family members also really care but to hear it is just, something else. And more importantly, it made me think about them too.

To her rants about doctors, nurses, hospitals, veins, cold caps, chemo and radiotherapy. Listen to how terrible she felt by the time she got off the train. Listen to how her tastebuds have changed, how she can't move her arm properly, how she's thinking of seeing a homeopath, how she's just read a book about healing. Listen while she laughs about what one of the other patients said to her - even if it's boring and you feel tired and uncomfortable and your mind begins to wander. Listen. Because when you're gone she'll be alone with her thoughts and her fears and her uncertainty. And they'll be no-one there to distract her then, or to laugh at her jokes or to sympathise. So just listen. 

Make it about them.
I live in a big, sprawling, anonymous city called London and I think that this sometimes makes folks a little bit, how shall I say, self-absorbed. So for this, I'll forgive them. I'll forgive the friend who rang me up to tell me about his own problems; perhaps in doing so he thought that it might help me to forget about my own. I forgive the friend who called me to blame me about something that had happened in the past. Because really I know that deep down the attack was about her own guilty feelings, not mine. I'll even forgive the friend who never replied to my text when I asked her for a hospital visit on a particularly lonely day, and made sure that she waited until the evening when I was too groggy and tired to receive guests to ask if she should come. I know that this is sounding like I only know a bunch of selfish arseholes, and if I just read this, I'd assume the same thing too. But if I told you that these very same people sent me cards and gifts on a regular basis, checked in regularly to see how I was, turned up with fruit and presents and spent the day or evening chatting and making me laugh, you'd feel confused. The point is that nothing is so simple. We're all too damn complex. And like cancer cells, unfortunately, there really is no black and white. Kind people sometimes say stupid things, intelligent ones act selfishly, caring ones run away. We're not so in control of our emotions as we'd like to think. But if you can't help yourself, if you just don't have the coping skills and have no idea what to do or say next, just focus on the person. Don't make it about you. Just imagine what that person might be feeling and go with it. Don't feel guilty, don't feel pity, just let them lead you this time. 

So there you have it. Yet another top five. Anyone care to expand on this ?


  1. I like your list. My favorite is number four because sometimes my hubby needs a break! Genuinely good listeners are hard to come by.

  2. Yes, it's true. They are ! But so essential when you sometimes need to offload your unintelligible rants on to someone... ! thanks for your comment Cx