What do you say when a friend has cancer?

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A year ago today, I went to see my doctor about a lump that was growing scarily fast inside my mouth. Twelve days later, I was in a hospital bed with a cocktail of chemo drugs moving through an IV in my arm.

Over the next few weeks, I adjusted to the fact that I had squamous cell carcinoma; that it was most likely curable; and that I had a long road of chemotherapy and radiation ahead.

But one thing I couldn’t get used to was telling people I had cancer.

It wasn’t so much that revealing the news was painful; it was that I dreaded the responses. I hated giving bad news to people I cared about. I hated seeing them upset.

Telling my parents was the worst, especially as they’re 3,000 miles away. I kept dancing around the c-word, using medical terminology, until finally I had to say, “It’s kind of a cancery thing.”

At which point, my mom started to cry.

Friends were not much easier. The day before I started treatment, I went the movies with a dear friend of almost 20 years. I managed to find ways to avoid the conversation until she dropped me off at home and I was about to get out of the car (“Oh, by the way …”).

To avoid telling people face to face, I sent out carefully crafted “I have bad news” emails, which gave the recipient the luxury of taking it in and thinking about a reply (and, selfishly, meant I didn’t have to worry about bursting into tears at their reaction).

Of course, people’s responses were not surprising; they were just emotionally hard to handle.

But the thing is that, even now, I couldn’t tell you what I would have preferred instead.

And I certainly can’t provide you with a failsafe response in case someone you love tells you they have cancer.

Everybody handles their cancer diagnosis differently. And what someone wants to hear from you will vary, depending on how close your relationship is, or the reaction of the last person they told, or whether they’re tired, nauseous, in need of a chocolate fix.

There are no words to make it better. There’s no magic spell to take it away. And you’re not expected to be perfect.

If all you can offer is “I’m sorry” and a hug, that’s fine. Show that you’re there for them in that moment, and that you’ll be there when they need you.

My friends and family were great about that. Some delivered homemade muffins or ice cream. Others came to watch a movie and keep me company on the long winter days when I didn’t want to leave the house. Others offered to clean the apartment or shovel snow. Another, too far away to visit, sent regular packages – a book, a pretty headscarf, a letter to say she was thinking of me.

What should you do? It depends on how well you know the person with cancer and what their preferences are. If you don’t know, it’s absolutely okay to ask them. But don’t take it to heart if they’re not forthcoming.

Remember that as hard as it is for you to hear a loved one say “I have cancer,” it may be even harder for them to tell you.

Carolyn Grantham is a former co-editor of Insight, Dana-Farber’s blog.

11 comments

  1. As a 10+ year stage 3 anaplastic large cell lymphoma survivor, there’s little that I have forgotten about my experience, but one thing that really stands out is how difficult it was to tell my family and friends that I had cancer.

    My children were age 18 to 7 at that time, and I was by myself when I learned the news. I came home and told my husband, and then each of my four children who arrived home from school that day at various times. Then I called my parents, who horrifically would receive a similar phone call that very same day from my brother who learned he had thyroid cancer for the 2nd time.

    As terrible as it is to have cancer, it is also awful to relay this news to others, particularly those you love. Once I did let others know, I quickly learned that my reactions would be mirrored in the faces of those around me, especially my children.

    The story of the day I learned of my diagnosis can be found here: http://alongthewaypammeb.blogspot.com/2011_04_01_archive.html

  2. Carolyn: As a co-worker at Dana-Farber you would think that we have the prefect response to finding out a friend has cancer. Even after working here all these years, it’s still difficult to hear that someone you care about has to go through a tough time. When you told us, I knew you’d be fine, but I just didn’t want to see you suffer. All I can say is that I hope we showed you the support and encouragement you needed. I always feel that that letting a friend know you are there for them and empathizing with their anxiety is the beast approach. Glad you are looking great and feeling great in this New Year. Thanks for the advice.

  3. Carolyn,

    You are amazing.

    LBM

  4. Cindy McKeown says:

    Carolyn,

    As much as I have thought about how hard it is to find the right thing to say when a friend has told me about his or her cancer diagnosis, I’m embarrassed to admit that I never considered how hard it must be to tell someone you have cancer. It’s opened my eyes to something I thought I knew about – but seeing it now from the perspective of the newly diagnosed person is really important – thank you so much for your wonderful clarity and insight.

  5. Debbie Ruder says:

    Carolyn — Thanks for the fantastic tips about how to lend support to a friend/loved one who’s facing cancer. When I went through cancer treatment years (decades!) ago, I remember relishing those conversations with friends that DIDN”T revolve around the disease; I wanted to hear what was going on in their lives. I also appreciated when friends told me it was OK to crawl under the covers and feel lousy if I did.
    Here’s to a great 2012 ahead for you!
    Debbie

  6. Ken Panthen says:

    I was diagnosed in March of 2011 and my case was immediately handled by the hemotologic center at Dana-Farber. I have completed all the chemo and I am now 8 weeks post Stem Cell Transplant. Doing great!

    Let me tell you a bit of how I handled telling friends and co-workers that I had cancer. The day after the diagnosis, I immediately asked my superiors to gather all the staff, including 6 that I supervised into a conference room. I looked at all of them, shaking in my pants, and said, “I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Mantle Cell Lymphoma.” There was silence in the room. I further explained what my options were and that I would be leaving work for an extended period of time for treatment.

    The reason I did this……I wanted everyone to know the real truth and settle it once and for all. Over the next several weeks in the office, many of the staff came to me and offered any help that I may need, but didn’t make me feel like I was a walking time bomb.

    Several weeks later, I decided to retire and asked that in leu of any gift or party, that they make a donation in my name to Dana-Farber. My doctor was shocked when I handed him a copy of a very sizeable donation made by my co-workers.

    I have since kept in touch with all my friends and co-workers through a periodic emails. As my treatment progressed, EVERYONE knew what was happening and how I was feeling. The response was fantastic.

    Today, I feel I could run into anyone of them without any reservation. Since I have just received clearance to be around larger groups of people, at some point I will try and visit my old office and see everyone. That will probably be quite emotional, but since everyone knows the facts and my travels through the entire process, they won’t ask many questions.

    Best of luck to all

    KPanthen

  7. Michael Buller says:

    Well said Carolyn. We’ve struggled as well with the how and who to tell. For some of our mutual friends, who knew a little bit about my diagnosis, it actually turned out much easier for my wife to tell them. And my sister actually broke the news to my parents at first, and then after they were over the shock, it was easier for us to talk.
    Thanks for sharing your story.
    –michael

  8. Mary Ann Burke says:

    I think Laura’s short but sweet comment is the best. I was diagnosed last March with metastatic breast cancer (my original 2008 diagnosis had come back in my brain, lungs and lymph nodes). I didn’t so much dread telling family and friends, I dreaded their response. I am a fighter – and I know this is a tough battle – one which I may not win in the end, but that’s not the point. The point is that I don’t want to hear “I”m sorry”. Sorry to me sounds like there’s no hope. There is always hope. I am currently in a clinical trial with Dana Farber and so far so good. I have a strong feeling of hope as do my family. One thing I urge family and friends of cancer patients…PLEASE don’t say you’re sorry.

  9. Maria Hanchett says:

    In November, 2010, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 Endometrial cancer and scheduled for a complete Hysterectomy which was done in December, 2010. I told my husband who was so supportive. Both he and my daughter went to every appointment to ensure that I understood what the surgical oncologist was telling me. I told my friends and co-workers and they were wonderful. I got a great basket of goodies from my co-workers full of books, puzzles etc. to keep me busy while I recuperated. Unfortunately, within 3 months, I had an unexpected Vaginal Cuff Recurrence which turned my world upside down. I called my friends and co-workers and told them that it had returned and I would be going through an aggressive treatment plan and would be out of work for at least 6 months. My family, friends & co-workers were with me the whole time! The cards, food, and visits kept me focused on getting healthy. Very few of them told me that they were sorry, instead they told me that I was mentally strong and would make it through anything that they could throw at me. One co-worker called me and said these three words “Suck it up” and I did. 17 co-workers come to my home and gave me a “Flash Mob” dance in the street on the very day that I began to lose my hair! I will remember that as long as I live. I am now in remission hope that I am finally done with Cancer, but if not, I know that I have a great support system of family and friends to help me through!

  10. [...] and waiting complicates the whole “who-do-you-tell” process. Physically, there’s nothing different about me; I have no symptoms, no tell-tale [...]

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