What’s the very best thing you can give a cancer survivor this holiday season? A warm hat? Movie tickets? A gift certificate for a massage? All of those will be appreciated. But others, equally meaningful, simply can’t be purchased: These gifts rely on thoughtfulness, patience, and a caring heart.
When you’re young and healthy, time stretches ahead of you endlessly. The 10-year-old can’t imagine being a grown-up; the 30-year-old sees an unformed future of settling down with a partner and raising children.
But for those with cancer, the timeline that once seemed hazy and undetermined suddenly becomes starkly real and potentially finite. Your expected lifespan is suddenly based on studies and statistics: There’s an 80 percent chance you’ll be alive in 5 years … and a 20 percent chance you won’t. Rather than considering the hour of your death as a complete mystery, you now see an outline: failed chemo, an unsuccessful clinical trial, the pain and anguish of knowing you’re dying well before death actually claims you.
You can’t offer someone with cancer more time in their life; researchers now believe that many cancers follow their own deadly path no matter what treatment a patient undergoes. But you can make sure that the time you spend with your survivor friend or family member is time that will be remembered with fondness, not rancor. Ditch any simmering family feuds or the memory of long-ago slights; they’re history, and not worth reliving. Instead, focus on the present: a latte at Starbucks discussing gift lists, or a walk through your downtown decorated with Christmas lights.
You probably have just the slightest idea of the many issues your friend with cancer is trying to juggle. From feeling physically unwell, to a mental fog begetting forgetfulness, to the never-ending drumbeat of fear, cancer isn’t easy.
What can you do? Move at the same slower pace as your friend. Who cares if people are rushing past you? When you ask a question and she doesn’t answer right away, give her time to process; don’t jump in just to fill the silence. And when he wants to vent his fear, don’t brush it aside with casual reassurance; listen, ask questions, keep him talking. Fear shared is fear diffused.
There’s absolutely nothing cancer patients and survivors crave as much as a return to their pre-cancer life. Maybe the ho-hum sameness of everyday life seemed like a drag back then; now, from the perspective of someone who might lose it all, the daily grind looks like paradise.
You can’t reverse time and take your loved one back to those cancer-free days. But you can act as if she doesn’t have cancer (when appropriate). Don’t be afraid to laugh, long and hard. Tell a cancer joke: “Did you know this cancer center is really popular? Yeah, people are dying to get in!”
Talk about totally inconsequential things, like whether you should buy those new shoes. Most important, don’t be afraid to whine about your own life. Sure, she’s facing a potential death sentence while you’re worried about your 14-year-old’s homework habits. But offering advice around everyday matters, like she used to do, represents normalcy — and it’s just what your survivor longs for.
Listening without judgment
There will probably come a time when your friend is facing a fork in the treatment path. Should he get a second opinion at a larger hospital? Should she order a wig, or is a hat OK? More importantly, should she try another round of chemo — or accept that the end is near?
Cancer survivors often keep their thoughts to themselves, unwilling to “burden” friends and family with the shared stress of their illness. But when they want to talk, it’s great if you can simply listen without trying to force an issue or coerce the person into working toward your own desired result.
Look at your friend as she speaks; listen carefully. Ask questions that can help clarify her own thoughts, rather than state your opinions. If she asks for advice, preface your response with, “This is what I think might work. But this is your health, and in the end the decision is about what you want, not anyone else.”
Especially with those we’re closest to, it’s hard sometimes to separate our own self-interest from the best course of action. Maybe your brother has decided radiation’s not for him, and he’ll take his chances with surgery alone. Back off; once you’ve made sure he has all the relevant data, understand it’s his decision to make.
And if your dad has decided he doesn’t want to go through another surgery, even though it’s his last best chance to survive, don’t try to talk him into it. You can’t know the depth of pain, battle fatigue, and worry that’s led him to this decision. Neither can you know the inner peace it’s probably giving him. Death isn’t always the worse recourse — even for the family and friends left behind.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.