October is breast cancer awareness month. Although I think of October as all women’s cancer month. In fact the latest research and finding are revealing that advanced and undetected breast cancer can lead to and/or be associated with many other cancers including lung cancer, which in the past was attributed only to smokers. By studying the body as a whole, we are learning more about cancer behaviors and most importantly how to detect cancer earlier and stop it in its tracks – the key to cancer survival.
Cancer is bad news. It sucks, its scary, its powerful and its ugly. Most of us either know someone who will or has been diagnosed with cancer. Whether it’s a dear friend, relative or colleague, we are faced with the questions: What is the right thing to say? What can I do? How can I help? As a cancer survivor, friend and advocate of cancer patients, I have been asked these questions by loving and well intentioned supporters many times.
The answer: there are no easy answers, as coping with cancer is extremely personal and each patient’s needs vary. The truth is that cancer takes over a persons life as they know it, it is totally all consuming, it is a fight for life and until it is gone, gone, gone the patient is in a place where levity and joy for the simple things becomes squelched by the basic need to survive.
However, that doesn’t mean that a good laugh, compassionate friend, simple acts of kindness aren’t the best medicine – in fact it’s vital to their healing. For those of us standing on the sidelines wishing there was something we can do, I have compiled a list from personal experience and extensive interviews with cancer patients of the TOP 10 things you can do or say to help brighten a cancer patient’s day.
Here you go:
1. Speak from the heart – If you are searching for the “right” thing to say, just remember it’s always best to speak from the heart, even if this means saying you’re scared or you are having a hard time with the news. Just remember though that this is not about you – be real with your feelings but keep the focus on the patient. Heartfelt and genuine discussions go a long way in building trust and intimacy, two things that are crucial in a relationship with a cancer patient.
2. Be an empathetic listener – Cancer is downright scary, and dealing with the fears and emotions that come with this disease can be an emotional roller coaster. You can help a loved one process these feelings by providing a safe place to talk, cry, complain, and vent. Simply listening and repeating phrases like “I hear you,” “You’re not alone,” “I understand,” and “I’m here for you,” help the cancer victim release negative feelings and emotions.
3. Support a cancer warrior – Cancer zaps a patient’s energy, strength and spirit – period. No matter how strong, positive or upbeat a patient is – cancer brings you to your knees. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and defeated when your body is not strong. I will never forget a dear friend’s quote: “Cancer is a war! You need to fight hard and strong every day. Most importantly, do not give up!” It was the perfect thing to say to help me to feel less like a victim. By giving me the job of a “Cancer Warrior,” my friends words helped me to stay mentally focused on the fight even when my body was tired. Cancer patients need people around them that are positive, inspirational and will help them stay mentally strong for the fight.
4. Be inclusive – Between constant trips to the hospital, doctor’s appointments, treatments, and feeling weak – a cancer patient is suddenly cut off from his or her normal life. One of the hardest adjustments for a patient is coping with the loneliness that while they are fighting for their life, the life and friends they know and care about are moving on without them. Even if you know the patient can’t make it to your party, gathering or event, reach out and extend an invitation anyway. It does wonders to the spirit to feel wanted and remembered.
5. Call often – Simply picking up the phone to say a meaningful hello and “I’ve been thinking about you” will keep a valued and close connection – but don’t expect a call back. It’s all a patient can do to fight the fight, they often don’t have the strength or energy for the simplest of daily tasks. So reach out lovingly and without expectations, even if they’re your best friend.
6. Divide and conquer – Don’t wait to be asked for help. A cancer patient is swirling in a whirlwind of emotions and a scary, new to-do list. Organize a few friends, make a schedule and take turns visiting, driving to the doctor’s, errands, dropping off prepared food, babysitting and so forth. Any help will be deeply appreciated.
7. Give a gift that gives back – Be mindful of gifts that require effort. Even reading a book can be exhausting. Choose a gift that makes life easier. My favorite present was given to me before I went into the hospital. It was an iPod my dear friends surprised me with, loaded with all my favorite music and photos of my newborn son and eighteen month old daughter. This was a constant source of joy and inspiration to fight during my stay in the hospital.
8. Find nutritious comfort foods – Not only is a patient too tired to think about cooking or what to eat, but they lose their appetite as well. It’s not easy to think of food when your body is ingesting poison-like chemo that brings on extreme nausea and vomiting or the radiation that induces a metallic taste and severe blisters and sores in your mouth. The necessity of basic nutrition becomes a daily struggle – as it is imperative to keep their body healthy and strong in order to get through the treatments. A hands-down favorite is the gift of easy, nutrition packed and comforting meals. I love the vegetarian frozen soups by Amy at The Gourmet Soup Kitchen in Santa Monica. You can check out her organic soups online at www.thegourmetsoupkitchen.com. She also delivers. But don’t take it personally if the food isn’t eaten or doesn’t sound good, the gesture will be appreciated.
9. Share a belly laugh – There may not be a magic cure, but laughter is truly the best medicine. Laughing not only offers a momentary break from the harsh reality of cancer, but it releases feel-good hormones that help rejuvenate cells. A funny movie is one of the best ways to bring on a laugh. Bring over a stack of the funniest DVD’s you can think of and watch them together – a laugh is so much better shared.
10. Reach out to the caretaker – With the focus being on the patient, the caretaker shoulders a heavy with the emotional and physical load it takes to stand by their side. Helping to arrange a little time off gives the caretaker an opportunity to take care of their own needs and replenish themselves. A little quality time and chance to take a step away gives the caretaker the much needed fuel they need to stay positive and strong for the long haul.
The healing benefits that come from the generous acts of love, kindness and compassion are priceless. These gestures will be the memories that are cherished long after the cancer is gone.
Hopefully, soon, we will see a day when cancer no longer threatens the lives of those we love.
In the meantime, early detection rules.
So get yourself, your partner, your friends and your loved ones checked – make it a party and keep on dancing!