When Traver Hutchins was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008, people were eager to help. Anyone who has ever had a family member, friend, or acquaintance diagnosed with cancer knows this feeling: the overwhelming desire to somehow show you care. But often, this desire is accompanied by feelings of discomfort and uncertainty. You may not know what to say. You may worry that you are only adding to the burden.
Awkwardness is just a fact of the situation for both parties, according to Traver. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to offer support.
“It’s awkward at first, when [people] first find out. They don’t know how to react,” Traver told HealthCentral in a phone interview. “And it’s awkward from my perspective as well, so I found myself putting in a lot of effort to make other people comfortable.”
Nonetheless, he said, it can be incredibly touching for someone with cancer to see others reaching out. Traver shared some of the most meaningful ways people have shown him their support during the past eight years that he has been living with multiple myeloma:
1. Stop by for a face-to-face visit: For Traver, it was when people took time out of their busy lives to visit that meant the most. “As difficult or as awkward as it is for everybody, […] the ones who made the effort and showed up at the hospital or wherever were the ones that were by far the most meaningful,” he said. Even if the person was only able to stop in for five or 10 minutes, Traver said it meant a great deal to him that they made the effort — especially when you consider they may have had to navigate a difficult hospital system or wear a mask just to come say hi.
2. Pitch in at home: Another great way to offer support, Traver said, is to help the person’s family when they can’t be there themselves. “It can be as simple as walking the dog,” he said. An especially meaningful gesture that helped Traver’s family was what he calls “the classic food train:” People brought meal after meal to his family to remove the burden of having to cook when there was so much else on their minds. “Somebody just took it upon themselves to organize all that,” he said. “It really made a big difference. I was just very touched by that.”
3. Comment on online support websites: Checking in on the family’s online support page and leaving a thoughtful comment is a meaningful way to show you care from near or far. “CaringBridge was pretty powerful,” Traver said. “It was a great way for my wife to tell everybody what was going on, and that relieved a lot of my burden of having to go through that.” The comments people left were inspiring, and it ended up being an excellent forum for the family to use. “I think people felt really liberated on that to express themselves,” Traver said.
4. Don’t ask, just do: Traver’s main piece of advice? “Think of how you might be helpful, and just do it. Go for it.” Because someone with cancer is likely devoting all of their focus to their illness, other things they may need help with may not even be on their radar. For Traver, it was most helpful when people would take it upon themselves to do something, rather than asking how they could be of assistance. “Even if it’s a total miss, it’s just awesome, whatever it is that they thought would be helpful,” he said. “Because you’re just too busy and wrapped up in the situation to really think about [it].”
5. Be patient with each other: Another important thing to keep in mind, Traver said, is that everyone is in it together in terms of learning how to navigate these situations. “I’m learning too, you know?” he said. “I look at myself and how I was with others that were going through challenges before I had, and there are just some things you just get better at when you’re in the situations yourself.” For Traver, this is one of the few blessings of having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. “You definitely get more empathetic, and you’re better able to be helpful,” he said. “You’re just not set up until you go through it.”
Want to hear more about Traver’s journey with multiple myeloma? View his story here.
Lara is a digital editor for HealthCentral. She is the site’s staff writer, Sexual Health editor, and email newsletter chief. Previously, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs, where she became obsessed with learning about women’s health, and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com. Connect with her on Twitter @laradesanto.