Cancer used to be so taboo a topic that it was difficult to even utter its full name. Instead people politely glossed over ‘the C word’, discussing it only in hushed tones behind closed doors. Now, in the fight back against cancer, survivors and those who love them are bringing the cancer conversation out into the open.

Sure, it can be difficult to know what to say when someone you love falls victim to this horrible disease, and it’s tempting to avoid the conversation completely, but as these breast cancer survivors reveal, saying nothing can be the most hurtful thing of all. Here, the dos and don’ts of tackling the cancer conversation head on by those who’ve been through it... 

‘Don’t tell me I look well’

Di McCleland, 49, an executive assistant from South Africa, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. She says:

“When you have cancer, it is very common for the people around you to not know what to say, and friends have drifted away as a result. I think it just becomes too hard for people to deal with. I know that before I was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer in 2014, I wouldn’t have known what to say to somebody going through chemo. Unless you have experienced cancer and the treatments yourself, you have no idea what that person is going through, and why would you?

“But one of the simplest ways you can show support and concern is just to be honest. Simply say, ‘I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you’, or ‘I’m not going to phone/text/visit you constantly, but if you need anything, please just shout’. Just knowing that you have people you can count on for support is so important.

“Don’t get upset if someone you know who has cancer falls off the face of the earth for a while – brunches, BBQs, ladies’ nights, and socialising in general can all just become too hard. Even though they may look relatively healthy from the outside it doesn’t mean they are feeling well inside.

“There are ways in which you can offer practical help. Offer to drop off a meal, visit them in hospital on chemo days, take them grocery shopping – you have no idea how exhausting it is to fill the trolley and unpack it at the check-out again. Stay positive and try to keep a sense of humour. I am constantly making very bad jokes about my cancer but it keeps me sane.

“In terms of what not to say, I hate it when people say, ‘You look so well.’ I have no hair, bags under my eyes, my skin is yellow and I am about to barf on your shoes... Other no-nos I’ve heard include, ‘Maybe if you wore a little bit more makeup, you’d feel a bit better’ or ‘You don’t look like you’ve got cancer, you are not skinny enough’. Oh, and never say to anyone with cancer, ‘Oh, my mother/aunt/friend had breast cancer, she died’. This is not helpful.

“Lastly, never try to force natural remedies on to people or question their treatment. Everyone is different, and treatment varies depending on the type of cancer you have. Lemons do not cure cancer and a lot of natural remedies cannot be used at the same time as chemo because they can actually interfere with the efficiency of the treatment.” 

‘Don’t avoid me’

Irina McGowan, 48, an Irish stay-at-home mum, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She says:

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer last December, and after a lumpectomy and chemo, I’m still having treatment every three weeks. I try to make it easy for people by passing over the confusing cancer conversation, and moving on to another topic we are both interested in.

“I’m selective about who I share my story with. Strangely, not all of them are my close friends.
I followed my inner urge to share. I know there are a few acquaintances that know about my cancer battle, but prefer to stay in the dark. I’m not upset with them; it doesn’t bother me at all. On the other hand, some of my distant acquaintances became close friends by being there for me 24/7.

"My diagnosis was a great friendship test."

The best way you can support someone with cancer is to treat that person the same way that you did before. Having cancer already makes you feel like an alien so acting differently around them only enhances that feeling.

“I remember one acquaintance learned about my diagnosis from a mutual friend. She called me one day and said she knew I was ill and offered her support. She didn’t have to do that as we hadn’t been in touch a lot. It was such a simple gesture but it took a lot of decency and courage. It says a lot about that person and it made me feel great.

“When you get diagnosed with cancer, you are hit by a tremendous sense of loneliness, so a bunch of flowers or an offer of a lift to the hospital, or even a WhatsApp message with words of support, makes a massive difference. I was lucky to have friends who were fantastic listeners. I could trust them enough to share my fears, and voicing them brought a great sense of relief.

“Above all, stay positive: being around positive people when you have cancer helps you believe things will be fine in the end. Laughter and humour charged my batteries completely – there is nothing like a good laugh with your friend to help you forget you are ill.

“On the other hand, negativity does the opposite. Cancer has shown me who my true friends are and that life is too short to waste it on the ones who are not real. I remember telling the news to one acquaintance in Dubai and her reply was, ‘Let’s have a coffee together when you’re done with the treatment.’ I’ve certainly made a few adjustments to my friends list.”

'Don’t tell me to get back to normal'

Nareena Mehra, 38, is from Canada and works in advertising. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. She says:

“People often get very uncomfortable saying the C word. Most people will keep telling you to stay strong. I often was told that ‘Everyone gets cancer nowadays, it’s not a big deal anymore.’ While these things don’t really make you feel much better, you just have to remind yourself that their heart is usually in the right place. You can tell when another person is sincerely empathetic. A hug or a warm smile is a simple way to show you care. Or tell that person openly that you can’t imagine how difficult it is to be going through what they’re going through, but that you love them and are there for them whatever they need.

“Keeping in touch is a great way to show support and concern. Many people disappear from your life for many reasons – perhaps because they think you need to be alone to get better, fear of not knowing what to say, or simply out of sight, out of mind. Calling, messaging, and visiting every now and then at the hospital or home actually makes you feel like you’re remembered, missed and loved while the world keeps moving on.

“There are lots of practical things friends and family can do to help. Listen when we need to talk. Taking care of kids while under treatment is tough, so offering to take the kids on the weekends/school pick-ups and playdates after school are all a blessing! Food is a big problem during treatment as your taste buds go completely off, so it’s a real treat when someone offers to cook a meal.

“It was hard when people would tell me, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be normal again soon’ or ‘Just get back to normal.’ Things will never be normal for someone who’s had cancer. What’s ‘normal’ has changed for us.

“People would tell me that I don’t look like I have cancer or have had cancer. I’m not sure what people were expecting, maybe for me to look all green and shrivelled up! No one sees what’s under your clothes – my body is all cut up and bruised. But you still go out there and wear that black dress and high heels, put on your lipstick and smile. You still make yourself look good so that you can feel good and strong. Because that’s the only way you know you’ll beat this disease and not let it get the better of you! So, what people can’t see, they can’t really understand. I might have looked OK, but my body would feel like a 60-year-old – even today. You’re not physically able to climb a flight of stairs as easily, or multitask and concentrate like you used to. People forget that you’re not the same and can’t do things in the way and in the speed you used to. So the expectations others have of you, you sometimes struggle to meet.”  

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Images by Shutterstock

This article was originally published in Aquarius magazine