Between Christmas and New Year, one of my close circle was diagnosed with a tumour. At this the world changes. One minute, you are living a normal existence with the usual stresses; the next you’re occupying Planet Cancer, an alternate, epically heightened reality in which one would give anything merely to be confronting the former run-of-the mill anxieties.
Overnight, life’s banalities can become agonising (the endless exhortations to “have a happy and healthy New Year” felt lacerating to my loved one). Still, at the age of 51, this isn’t my first rodeo. And I have learnt, through grotesque experience, that there are ways one can lighten – or, alas, add to – the cancer sufferer’s emotional load.
I need to remind myself of these now. They may also be of use to others at a time when cancer discoveries are surging post-pandemic, many caught late. How do we handle our own anxiety as someone close to a cancer patient, and how best to serve our loved one?
Don’t make this about you
Yes, you have an emotional investment, but it is the person with cancer that this is happening to. Your needs are secondary, including at the moment of being told. Don’t make it their job to console you. Seek that elsewhere: via Macmillan, for instance, or Mind UK. Your job is to support them and that starts now. Keep in loving contact on text and beyond. The key phrase here is not “Any news?” but “No need to reply.”
Take your cues from them
People panic and want to say something, anything. But, this is not about what you say, as much as how you listen. As MacMillan specialist Jane Laing confirms: “Listening is often enough”. If in doubt, deploy reflective listening, where you repeat back what they have told you in rephrased terms.
Used sensitively, this can be incredibly powerful. Don’t ignore or gloss over fear of death, but don’t plant it either. Don’t hide behind platitudes that everything will be fine, or insist that your friend “be positive”.
Comparisons are odious – and redundant
Don’t say: “My aunt had cancer in 1982 and she’s fine.” As Laing notes: “No two experiences are the same, even if you have had a cancer diagnosis.” People are different, tumours are different, science moves fast. As a pal with a rare variant tells me: “I had a treatment in May that only arrived in November – a completely different landscape in just six months. Unless you are a world-class oncologist, you don’t know anything.”
Keep your miracle cures to yourself
Don’t say: “You’ve got to cleanse /eat more healthily / pray to your pyramid of blessings”.
Compartmentalise your – and their – anxiety
Don’t over-invest in news, or brood over what might follow in the future. This is merely the latest instalment. Medical interpretations differ, circumstances change, this situation – more than any situation – evolves. Avoid doom at every vicissitude.
Protect children from the uncertainties, while telling them the truth
The most terrifying thing is not being able to rely on adults to be honest, thus fretting that things must be worse. Again, Macmillan has guidance.
The answer to “What can I do?” is concrete, practical things sanctioned by the sufferer
Make them meals, do their bins, walk their dog, entertain their offspring, drive them to appointments, talk to people on their behalf.
Things are still funny. They are still them. Have conversations about topics other than cancer
As a dear friend who has been living with the condition for several years tells me: “It’s better to have people put their foot in it than say nothing. Don’t be scared of sick people. Check in, but don’t demand a response. Visit if they want visits, send care packages – anything that shows they’re valued. Remember: they’re not the disease. Your friend is the same person, just going through a hideous time.”
Macmillan Cancer Support is on 0808 808 00 00, daily, between 8am and 8pm, or at www.macmillan.org.uk
Macmillan Cancer Support is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Age UK, RBLI and Action for Children. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2022appeal or call 0151 284 1927
Do you have any personal advice on how to best serve a loved one after a cancer diagnosis?
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