Knowing how to respond to a friend or family member who's been diagnosed with cancer is tough. You want to help, but you don't know how. That's why we went to Sally Kydd, PsyD, psychologist, author of Intimacy After Cancer (Big Think Media, 2006) and a breast cancer survivor, who offers her insight into helping your friend or family member through this difficult time.
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Do check your emotions
Often, many thoughtless or hurtful comments are made because people haven't thought about how they feel about cancer. Before you talk to this person, ask yourself how you feel about cancer and review your past experiences with others who have been diagnosed.
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Often, people, especially women, process issues through conversation, which is why it's important to be an active listener and let this person talk. Show that you're listening by asking questions like, "Is this what you mean?" or paraphrasing what this person's saying. Just don't step in to offer advice or opinions. Right now your ears are more important than your words.
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Do be there for that person
"The isolation of a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, especially initially," Kydd says. Make an effort to be there for this person. Offer, for instance, to accompany her to doctor appointments. Often, it's tough to digest all of the information from doctors and nurses and having a friend there can help gather information and ease anxiety.
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Do something concrete
Don't wait for this person to take you up on your offers to help. "It's easier for people who are sick to accept kindness in action, such as baked lasagna, versus calling friends for help," Kydd says. For instance, before you go to the store, call and ask if she and her family need anything. Or, confirm a date to bring her dinner.
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Everybody who's diagnosed with cancer will not have the same experience, which is why you shouldn't compare Aunt Jane's cancer to this person's. After all, everybody has different medical histories and different life experiences, and comparing illnesses does nothing to help your friend or family member.
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Do show affection
People who have been diagnosed with cancer are processing so many emotions, including depression and loneliness. Hearing that someone cares for them could provide a huge lift for their spirits. "Even just a gentle touch speaks volumes to a person who's feeling alone," Kydd says.
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Do focus on the person
Regardless of the cancer diagnosis, she's still the same person you've always known, and while she might want to talk about her fears and illness occasionally, it shouldn't dominate your conversations. Relive happy moments with her and do things together that you and she have always enjoyed like watching funny movies or playing cards.
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Do offer support for family
The person who's diagnosed with cancer isn't the only one struggling. So, too, are spouses and kids, which is why you shouldn't forget about them. Ask how they're doing, and if appropriate, do something concrete for them, too.
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Don't ignore her
The word cancer might scare you, but ignoring the person who's been diagnosed because of your own fears or concerns is the worst thing you can do. Even if all you do is send a note, let that person know you care and are thinking about her.
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Do continue intimacy
If you are the partner of someone diagnosed with cancer, it is important to keep being intimate. Intimacy here refers to the whole picture—from holding hands and hugging to laughing together and saying "I love you." And yes, even sex. Even if this person's not feeling up for sex, you can still make him or her feel valued and loved through other intimate actions.
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Don't say "cheer up"
Trite comments like "stay positive," no matter how well intended, don't help. "This person needs to process the full range of emotions, rather than focusing on being up all the time," Kydd says. If, though, you suspect depression, mention to a nurse or doctor at the next appointment that your friend seems more down than anticipated.