Nov 26

Help me come up with things to say/do

There are 2 clear trends on this blog: I keep talking about the not-helpful things people say to cancer patients and you guys like to help and comment (we’ve had fun the last few times!). So let’s combine the two and come up with things that you could  say  to a cancer patient or do to be helpful. Because let’s face it, it’s going to happen to someone else you know, so let’s use my experience to make it better for the next person.

  • ‘You look great!’ – that has to be my least favorite. It’s like an auto-response, people can’t help it, it’s the first thing out of their mouths. But it’s almost always not true, or has the hidden silent  ‘for a cancer patient’ tacked-onto it. How about the new auto-response be ‘it’s good to see you!’
  • ‘Your hair looks great!’ – I’ve addressed the hair thing many times. There is so much attention placed on hair, make-up, eyebrows. Let me tell you something: stop focusing on a person’s looks!!! Most days, the fact that I put on clothes is an achievement! And while you like the pixie cut on me, I don’t. But I like the boots that I put on. Or the sweater that I coordinated with my tank top. So if you must compliment a cancer patient on their looks, I would highly encourage you to focus your compliments on something the person has control over. ‘Nice shoes’, ‘I like that scarf’, ‘I have those same pants!’
  • ‘Let me know if I can do anything’ – first of all, do not EVER say that if you don’t mean it. Most people say it but have no intention of actually being of any kind of help. If you really do want to help, let me tell you from experience, the person going through cancer usually doesn’t know what day it is, so coming up with an helpful errand is next to impossible. My suggestion? Volunteer to do something you would be doing anyway. Going to the grocery store? Buy an extra loaf of bread or a bag of apples and bring it to the person’s house. Offer to take the kids – because cancer happens to everyone in a family. So if your kids are going to sit on the couch and watch a movie while doing rainbow loom, add your friend’s kids to the mix. Make extra food: On amazing friend often dropped off soup/brownies/sauce. She was making it for her family and just doubled her recipes. She never asked first. She just did it. Some days, it landed on the perfect day. Other days, I froze what she brought. Another friend read the weekly school email and saw that I had recess duty coming up. She emailed me to say she was covering it. Pre-emptive helpfulness. Finally, and this will surprise no one: be a Wine Fairy. Or a Rice Pudding Fairy. Or a Chocolate Fairy. Just do *something*. Trust me, it means more than you will ever know to the recipient. If you are not in the same city: SNAIL MAIL! I’m telling you, the days when the mailman had something for me cheered me up more than anything else. Even though I could be in touch with the same people electronically, there is something about real mail that can not be explained.
  • ‘Call me if you want to talk’ – now, this one is in part due to my own personality, but I can tell you after speaking to other patients, I’m not the only who feels like this. It’s very hard to reach out to people. The longer the treatment goes on, the harder it gets. Because you feel like a burden. You feel like you are bothering people. People have busy lives and you are an interruption, an anomaly. So if you have a friend who is going through cancer, the ball is kind of in your court to reach out to them. And you might have to do it more than one time.
  • Don’t ask the patient to make choices! I thought this was just me, but I’ve been comparing notes with other patients… The few times I went out for lunch, people would say ‘where do you want to go? What are you in the mood for?’ and all I could think was ‘what day again? what time?’ during treatment, everything is overwhelming, so the thought of picking a restaurant IN ADDITION to getting dressed, putting on makeup and putting on a wig is overwhelming. For me, the best outings were ‘lets go to lunch on tuesday at 12. we can either go to A or B, we’ll decide when i pick you up, depending on how your stomach feels’. One lady I met told me when she got to the restaurant, she excused herself and went to the bathroom to call her sister and ask her what to order because looking at the menu, she started to shake and she didn’t remember what she liked. Trust me, if I’m in the mood for a grilled cheese and pickles, I will tell you! But otherwise, limit the options!
  • it’s ok to talk about non-cancer stuff! let’s talk about TV, or Rob Ford, or take bets on when the Champlain bridge is going to collapse. I have a lot of time on my hands, I am up-to-date on ALL the news!

Ok, now it’s your turn. What are some good things you could say to someone who is going through this? Tips, ASSvice, ideas, go for it!


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  1. Jennye

    I have no advice to add but I will say thanks because those are good solid helpful suggestions that I am totally going to use. Gonna copy and paste them to my household notebook for ready reference.

  2. Nance

    hmm, I’ve never thought about the choices. I will keep that in mind. Clearly, I haven’t been thinking about that.

    I do tend to keep an eye out when browsing the mall or stores for something whimsical for friends. Something that I think would make them laugh.

    I (haven’t in a while) participate in a neighborhood brigade where meals are made for local cancer patients. The families contact the brigade and you can sign up for a meal on-line and just follow the drop off instructions. More than once I have just doubled the recipe and made 2 pans worth of something.

    This is one I just picked up from you: Keep latest book ideas for those who have to take books to appointments, or what shows may be good to binge watch.

    Here’s a question back: Is it reasonable to ask how you are feeling? Or does that feel like a burden too and it’s easier to just say fine rather than go into your back pain or brain lapses, etc?

    1. outrunningthecloud

      meal brigades are great! I will tell you though, from personal experience, and this is NOT A CRITICISM of anyone, just the reality: the meals happen fast and quick at the beginning. and then, well, not so much. and as Amy mentioned in her comment, treatment is looooong. and it’s actually when you are further along, when the fatique has accumulated and you are sad and depressed and your kids are fed up that the meals would be equally, if not more welcome.
      As for asking, yes, it’s totally ok to ask. But as I have been saying all along, only ask if you are prepared for the truth. If you are asking out of social politeness and only expect a shrug and an OK, then don’t ask. If you are asking because you genuinely care and have the time to listen to the answer, then yes, ask!

  3. Kate

    I hate when people say “I wish I could fix it”. I don’t need anyone to fix anything. I just want to vent and have my friends say “Dude, that sucks.”

    1. outrunningthecloud

      yes!!! unless you are suddenly planning on becoming a cancer researcher, there is nothing to fix. Even if you were a cancer researcher, the fixing is kind of not going to work at this point. It’s very hard for people to just say ‘I’m really sorry this is happening. it fucking sucks.’

  4. R

    I totally suck at this so thanx for the advice. Love having helpful suggestions. Advice for shit you know nothing about.

    1. outrunningthecloud

      you don’t suck! you did impromptu visits! you check up on me CONSTANTLY even from your own sick-bed!

  5. Amy/grrlTravels

    I try hard not to say “you look great!” when I don’t mean it, but you are right–it automatically pops out some times.

    I love your idea about including family members, especially children. The gestures people made towards me when my mom had cancer were very meaningful. Don’t forget the significant others/children/close siblings–whomever.

    If you can’t do anything or really don’t know what to do I also think a donation in the person’s name to a charity they hold dear is meaningful. Also if the person is in the hospital (or having outpatient treatments often) magazines, books, iTunes gift card, or a treat for the nurses is practical.

    The other thing you allude to which I think is important is to stay with the person throughout all of the treatments and after. It’s a long haul for the patient–you can’t show up with one meal and check that person off. The support needs to be extended for a long time–probably longer than you know, perhaps longer than you feel comfortable with. As you’ve stated before, people want so badly for you to be better, for the cancer scare to be over, for things to return to normal. But that takes a long, long time (like grieving) and may never happen. So be there for the long haul.

    This post was VERY helpful. It’s given me a new way to think about things, and I’m grateful for that. Keep on telling us–we want to hear. xo

    1. outrunningthecloud

      Amy, you have just sprung my next post. And I would like to ammend my current post to say: Don’t say ‘you must be happy it’s almost over!!!!’
      yes, I’m RELIEVED that the treatment portion is coming to an end. But it’s far from over. There is no switch that you flick the day after the last radiation. I have A LOT to say about this, but I’ll draft another post instead of highjacking my own comment section!

      1. Amy/grrlTravels

        Ah yes, happy it’s almost over makes an assumption that probably shouldn’t be made. Perhaps, perhaps, after 5 years of clean scans one can relax a bit. And perhaps not. I’m guessing something along the lines of “Will things be easier once the chemo treatments are done?” would be more palatable.

  6. Liz

    these are so helpful. I do think the “for a cancer patient” isn’t just implied– it is fully intended. You look great really means “I am thrilled to see that you feel well enough to put on those sweatpants and leave the house” but I will keep in mind to say the long version, not the shorthand because it really is irksome.

    O hadn’t thought about the choices thing. I think from a non-cancer perspective, you think “holy shit, her life is entirely being dictated by the chemo schedule or the rads schedule or the fact that her hair all fell out and she is puking, I will take her to lunch and let her choose so she can control something for fuck’s sake” so perhaps the best option is a hybrid, exactly as you suggested. “Let’s go Tuesday at noon. I’ll pick you up and if there’s something you want, we’ll do it. If not, I’ll have ideas ready.”

    It’s difficult, of course, for everyone. Your friends are used to you being you, and in normal circumstances I sort of imagine that they would NEVER tell you “we are doing this at this time” and expect to get out of it alive (unless it involves a lot of wine and chocolate). They want to treat you the same way they always have, because to do otherwise feels really insulting from the outside. It seems like babying or pandering… but of course, what you ned some days is exactly that. Of course, form the outside no one can tell which days those are.

    I wonder if some days you would love it, and some you would hate it. I mean, no one would EVER object to someone taking over their recess duty, but the rest of the taking over could be good or bad, depending not he day.

    I like the idea of inviting the patient along on things: we are going to lunch at blank… want to come? If the answer is yes, great. If it is no, then maybe “would you come if we went elsewhere, or shall we just bring you takeout and a bottle of wine on our way home?”

    1. outrunningthecloud

      yes, everything you say is right. What I’m saying is, Cancer turns you into someone else. At least during the treatment. I normally am a very organized multi tasker who would be the one suggesting restaurants and running errands for other people. I went 6 days without underwear because I COULD NOT REMEMBER to put them on before the leggings, and it was too much work to take the leggings off and start over. THAT is cancer.
      I don’t want to generalize, not everyone is like that. What I’m saying it for some people, it’s like that. And as a friend of a person going through hell on earth, it’s your job (not you Liz, you, the any-friend reading this comment) to figure it out. Because the person who can’t remember to put on underwear is probably not going to call you and say Wanna go for lunch?

      1. Liz

        I do think we all need to hear this, because it really is the case with any friend undergoing a major illness/ personality change. I have a dear friend who has been dealing with very very severe depression and anxiety, and while is not *quite* the same as cancer (I really mean that, it isn’t) it has changed her personality in some similar ways. I take her grocery shopping, for example, because she just can’t cope. She doesn’t want me to just do it (I have offered) but she needs the support.

        I guess it’s just good to know we need to turn the assumptions around completely: presume that your friend needs and wants the help and hope that she will tell you no thanks if she doesn’t want it.

  7. Julie Kristof

    Thanks for articulating this so beautifully. This is an amazing post that should be shared widely.

    I’d like to add something to the “how are you” or “how are you feeling” piece. I agree that when you ask, you should expect an honest answer. But also, don’t be insulted if you do get a shrug of the shoulders and an “ok”. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’m just too tired or too emotional to answer the question. Also don’t be insulted if I don’t respond in a socially appropriate manner. I’m sure I’ve said some stupid shit over the past few years.

    Courage. This all sucks.

    1. outrunningthecloud

      yes, you are right Julie, sometimes, a shrug is all you will get. I think though you hit the nail on the head when you said ‘socially appropriate manner’. I find it hard to be socially appropriate under the best of circumstances! filters are for Instagram, not my thoughts! And when you had the heavy blanket of cancer, I just lose all my patience for social niceties

  8. Meg

    Thank you for sharing. This really is wonderfully helpful!

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