"If you look closely, you may find God's Heart--even as lightning strikes in the darkest places."
When my doctor’s phone number showed up in Caller ID after a week of medical tests, I felt relieved. “Finally, she’s calling to give me a good report and I’ll get on with life.” Instead three words slammed into my optimism, “You have cancer.” Knees buckled, immediate tears stung my cheeks. Every word that followed sank into a black-hole-like echo of my doctor’s previous statement. Relief melted into gasps. Struggling to catch what breath remained in me, I felt as if someone ripped every ounce of air from my lungs, collapsing them.
Picture a hot air balloon flopping on the ground at the conclusion of a windy festival.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis shocked my system and ripped my heart. As healthy as I’ve always been, I could not have been less prepared for the news. Disconnecting the call, I’ve never felt more alone in my life. Tonto had Silver. Captain Kirk had Spock. Xena, Warrior Princess had Gabrielle. I sensed I faced a journey too turbulent to travel solo. Like Moses with Aaron and Hur I needed someone to hold me up. I ached for connection with people who love me. I reached out carefully to those closest to me. But with nearly every conversation, I grew more discouraged and less willing to risk vulnerability.
Imagine confiding heart-piercing news with persons you care for only to hear them launch into platitudes. Or stories. Or comparisons. Or false cheerfulness. Or remedies. Or advice. The insensitivity of some people—even those with the best of intentions—staggers the imagination. What one mistakenly considers support, bonding, or encouragement, a cancer patient interprets as dismissiveness. We disclosed to you what likely amounts to the hardest reality of our life and in your eagerness to soothe (Us? Or yourself?), you changed the subject. Or at least the focus of the subject.
God forbid anyone you love ever utters the statement to you, “I have cancer.” But in case those words one day assault your ears, understand that whatever happens or is spoken in the first few moments of such a disclosure could linger in your relationship indefinitely. With that, please keep the following in mind.
(A disclaimer may be appropriate: The following is offered in a sincere desire to bring Kindness to Chaos. I do not profess to speak for everyone with cancer. Even so, please at least consider that these avoidances might possibly be universal.)
- Don’t tell you own story. If you survived cancer, at some point your story may be invited into the conversation but until then keep it to yourself. As a matter of fact, don’t do anything that makes the situation about you. It isn’t.
- Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. Every tumor is different (and not all cancers are tumors). Likewise every individual brings to a cancer diagnosis our own set of life struggles & challenges uniquely impacting our cancer journey. Same diagnosis as you doesn’t equal same experience. Ever. Now go back and read #1 again for good measure.
- Don’t give advice. Not home remedies. Not nutritional suggestions. Not even a book on meditation or the phone number of your yoga instructor. When we brave pouring out our heart to you, we are most likely in shock or at the very least, still processing the news. Your advice comes out sounding like Charlie Brown’s school teacher… “WaaWaa. Waa. WaaWaaWaa.”
- Don’t regale us with stories. Especially about someone else you know who had cancer. Not a relative. Not an old buddy. Especially not your dog. We may be too kind to tell you in that moment but we honestly don’t want to hear other people’s stories.
- Don’t ask questions about specifics of the cancer. We will tell you what we want you to know. Listen. Even when we pause. Keep listening. Silence won’t kill you. If you must comment, muster a sincere, “I’m so sorry.” Or “That really sucks.” Then listen some more.
- Don’t blame. This shouldn’t even have to be stated. But sadly, people do this. The healthier-than-thou individual feels a need to boast that HE never smoked, or ate junk food, or missed a single day at the gym in his entire lifetime since Toddler Gymboree. Shaming someone with cancer? Shame on YOU.
- Don’t blurt out trivial responses. “It’s going to be okay.” We understand that you’re trying to be encouraging, but you don’t KNOW that it’s going to be okay. And even if the situation DOES turn out okay eventually, at this moment of disclosure life is not okay. This moment is grueling. Don’t dismiss our pain to make yourself feel better. If you stuff the sorrow of this occasion, chances are we will too. And in that case, neither of us is healthy.
- Don’t misrepresent Scripture. “God must really have a lot of confidence in you because the Bible says He won’t give you more than you can bear.” This may not be the best time to break it to you but the Bible says no such nonsense. Have you read about Job? Or Paul? Or Steven? Call me quirky, but I think losing all your children in one day, being boiled in oil or stoned to death qualifies as more than a person can bear.
- Don’t ask, “What do you need?” While scratching the surface of helpfulness, this question contributes to confusion. The truth is, we don’t know what we need. Not really. We can barely wrap our mind around the whirlwind of treatment details and the decisions looming in the days ahead. Please don’t compound the mental chaos. A more appropriate question may be, “Who is helping coordinate your care so I may arrange to drive you to a doctor appointment? Or bring you a meal? Or do a load of laundry? Or clean your bathroom?” Offer one specific way you may contribute. Then deliver on the commitment.
- Don’t be afraid to cry with us. Recognize that a first conversation with someone sharing cancer news is sacred. We’re hoping you’ll hear our heart breaking through our words. We may silently search your eyes for compassion. We may secretly wish you’d wrap your arms around us and hold us as we cry. Even so, we’re probably trying to be tough for your sake when inside our rock wall lies in pebbles and rubble. “May I give you a hug?” could go a long way to communicate sincere sorrow for this situation. And for crying out loud, if you’re going to hug, make it a REAL one. Even if we start to shake. Or cry. If that happens, we’re probably overdue for tears. Hold on tighter and encourage the tears to flow.
- Don’t simply make prayer promises. “You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers.” Future thoughts and prayers are wonderful. But if you’re a spiritual person, PRAY right then and there. At least ask, “May I pray with you?” Then keep it brief but encouraging. If we truly believe Prayer Changes Things, why don’t we pray more often?
- Don’t focus every subsequent conversation on cancer. If we told you we have cancer, it’s likely because a meaningful tie already exists. Continue the rhythm of the relationship or friendship by talking about things we’ve always talked about, share the same things we’ve always shared, and engage in the activities we’ve previously enjoyed together (to the extent physically possible).
Cancer sucks. Don’t let your reaction to cancer news amplify the suck. Kindness matters. Especially in the chaos of a cancer diagnosis.
Please share these tips with friends and loved ones. The truth is, we live in a broken world and bad things happen everyday. These tips could apply, not simply to a cancer diagnosis, but to any tough news someone discloses to you. Keep those moments sacred and you’ll preserve a dear friendship through what will likely be a very difficult journey.
DiAnna Steele is a writer, speaker, and a cancer patient, currently trusting God to give her wisdom and courage for the battle ahead. She is grateful for your prayers and support as outlined above. Otherwise, she counts on your silence. www.diannasteele.com