terms of endearment, deborah winger, how to talk about cancer, cancer, ill health, body

How to talk about cancer

A cancer diagnosis brings with it a seismic shock: the sudden realisation that this disease really is arbitrary.  Because it recently picked out one of the healthiest, happiest, most stable and life-loving people I know. All of the below comes from what she told me. Perhaps some of the below will be helpful if you find yourself in the same position

  1. A friend with cancer is not suddenly a different person. They still think things are funny, they still want to know gossip, they still want to talk about random stuff that isn’t cancer. Treating someone with cancer differently will only make them feel more alienated from the life they’re trying to get back to.
  2. Don’t tell them they’re brave. They’re fucking terrified and having to do horrible things to their bodies in order to get better because that’s what they’ve been told to do. Telling someone they’re brave makes it harder for them to talk about their fear.
  3. Let them talk about their fear. Telling someone with cancer that they’re going to be OK is not helpful. It’s bulldozing the gravitas of their experience. It masks the truth – which is that no one knows for sure what’s going to happen. Asking your friend how they feel about their diagnosis and not contradicting them if they express their fear for the future makes you a better friend than telling them it’s all going to be fine. What you CAN guarantee is that you’ll be there with them every step of the way.
  4. Respect the truth. Don’t tell someone who looks like shit that they look great. It just makes it feel like you can’t have a real conversation because everyone knows when they look like shit.
  5. Unless they ask, don’t offer to introduce them to other people who have been through cancer. This may not be a members club they want to be part of. Talking to others who have been through a similar experience is not helpful for everyone.
  6. Let them cry without smothering them. Listening to someone without trying to fix things is important. And contact them regularly. Ask them how they’re feeling today and don’t try to justify anything that sounds grim with ‘Just focus on how the chemo is making you better’. It doesn’t make it less bloody awful.
  7. Make them laugh. Cancer is not the elephant in the room. You have to acknowledge it, but you also have to make them feel like it’s not all you see when you look at them.
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