Supporting someone with cancer part II

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cancerpatientsupport.jpgBy Andrew Griffith

Andrew Griffith has mantle cell lymphoma and had an auto (November 2009) and an allo (August 2011) stem cell transplant. He lives in Canada and is married with two young adult children. He blogs at, is working on a book on his journey, and can be followed on Twitter @lymphomajourney.

Part II of yesterday's post: Supporting someone with cancer

We are individuals and react differently to what people say or don't say, do or don't do. The experience of cancer makes us more sensitive, and we need to look behind some of the clichés that family and friends may use to deal with their own discomfort.

We need to think back to when someone close to us had a difficult experience and how well we handled it -- or not -- and provided support.

One of my most intense times was with a colleague in the final stages of cancer. We both knew we didn't have much time and went right into the existential. With other friends, there is more a gradual scale, although with my closest friends we do touch these topics.

Recognize the awkwardness
It's awkward having cancer and telling people. It's awkward for family and friends who don't know what to say. Accept this and get over it. Serious illness is part of life that, sooner or later, hits everyone.

Be aware and sensitive
Both sides tend to be more sensitive. Patients, facing all their existential questions and their brutal treatment, others, seeing their own "but there for the grace of God go I" mortality. We both need to be aware of this sensitivity.

  • Short phone calls and visits are better than long. Know when to leave. If in doubt, make it shorter or ask. Some of my close friends were very good at reading how I was feeling and I became better at saying, "thanks, but I'm fading now." Take the patient's lead. It's their dance, after all.
  • People have mixed opinions about sayings like "I feel sorry for you" or "My thoughts and prayers are with you." I never resented these expressions, as they're a way for people to express how much they care for you. Others did. Deborah Orr usefully suggests a better phrase, "I so wish you didn't have to go through this ghastly time."
  • Be flexible. Patients have good days and bad days. Always for visits, walks, events, etc., add "if you're up to it on the day." But remember, it's about the patient; they have more latitude to cancel than you do.
  • Be careful with black humor. Some love it (I do!), others do not. If you're not sure, better to err on the cautious side (e.g., remarks about new hairstyles -- i.e., baldness -- may work better with men than women).
  • Tread carefully on questions about survival odds, test results, mortality, etc., unless invited. 
  • Don't recommend alternate treatments or doctors, unless invited. If you really feel that you have some unique information, scientifically backed up, ask permission before giving advice.
Be forgiving - don't try to be perfect
None of us get it right. We learn from our missteps. 

For patients, we need to be forgiving, recognizing that our family, friends and colleagues are expressing their love and care for us, no matter how clumsily at times. It's much better than being forgotten and left alone, so we need to appreciate it.

For family, friends and colleagues who blurt out something inappropriate, just say "oops," apologize and move on. In most cases, this is enough to get back on track. If you're unsure whether something said was perceived as inappropriate, just ask.

One of my closest friends, who would call and walk with me on a regular basis, made a comment that resonated with me. It was along the lines of, "By understanding what you are going through, I will be more understanding should I or someone else close to me be in a similar situation."

This wasn't cold utilitarianism at play, but rather his deep understanding of our common humanity. Dealing with cancer, a serious and possibly terminal illness, was part of our common humanity. It was to help him become a better person, while providing support to me. We have become closer as a result.

Above all, be there and the smaller things are just that: small, not important. The overall message of love and care comes through and both sides emerge closer and stronger than before.

Read part I of Supporting someone with cancer part

Read more posts by Andrew Griffith

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