What to say when you don’t know what to say

Hey party people, it’s Nick again.  I’ve written and rewritten this blog post three times now.  I think this is the best way to communicate the message we’re trying to convey.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much I enjoyed writing it.

When people talk about the big C, it brings up a lot of emotions and memories.  Everyone knows someone who has suffered from cancer.  A percentage of those people have had a family member or close friend who had cancer.  When people are vulnerable and have their emotions stirred, sometimes they aren’t thinking clearly.  I’m hoping that this post can help guide people as they reach out and try to help someone with cancer.  Most of these dos and do nots come from personal experience, but I don’t want people reading this to try to analyze everything they’ve ever said to someone who has cancer.  I should also say that I’m not pretending to be an expert who can speak on behalf of everyone who has cancer.  However, I have discussed these with Maegan, and think it will still serve people well.

Do not: Reach out to someone with cancer and tell them about your relative or friend who died of cancer.

Why not
: When someone gets diagnosed with cancer, it is absolutely terrifying.  I would bet that the percentage of people who think “Is this going to kill me?” when they get diagnosed is pretty close to 100%.  Your friend who just found out he/she has some form of cancer does NOT want to hear about everyone you’ve ever known who’s died of cancer.  My best guess is that people do this because they want to reach out, relate and empathize.  They’re trying to say, “Hey, I’ve been through this with my family and it sucks.”

What to do instead
: Reaching out to that friend who just got the bad news is awesome.  If you want to try and relate, say something like “My friend had cancer when I was younger.  I remember how scary it was walking along side her through that.”  See what I did there?  I related, showed support, and didn’t mention anybody dying.

Do not: Talk about how awful the final years of your friend/grandparents/family members life were when they had cancer.

Why not:
This builds off of the last one, but I wanted to give it it’s own paragraph.  Here’s the harsh reality, when people die of cancer, it can get pretty ugly.  The person’s body just becomes a shell of what it once was.  With that being said, nobody wants to hear about that right after they get diagnosed.  We got this message from MULTIPLE people and all it did was terrify Maegan when she was still trying to come to terms with her own diagnosis.

What to do instead:
If someone read just one snippet of anything I ever write on the internet, I would want it to be this…”Is what I’m saying for the person I’m reaching out to, or is it for me?”  When someone reaches out and talks about their friend dying, or watching their family member suffer, my gut is telling me that there might be some unresolved feelings of loss.  That’s a completely normal thing to happen, but that’s something to talk to a counselor about, not a newly diagnosed friend.

Do not: Bombard someone with every cure and herbal remedy you’ve ever researched.

Why not:
Who knew that Chemotherapy was so controversial?  I certainly didn’t.  People have their own philosophies on herbal remedies and all-natural cures.  I’m not going to speak to the validity of any of that because I’m neither a doctor nor have I researched any of it.  When someone is newly diagnosed with cancer, their life becomes a whirlwind of appointments and doctors visits (I spoke about this in my last post.)  Giving them even more information about different remedies will likely go unnoticed and unappreciated because it will just be part of the chaos.  Right after Maegan was diagnosed, we were basically just showing up where and when we were told.  It wasn’t uncommon for me to have to ask, “What are we doing here?  What kind of test or scan are they running here?” Also, Maegan had to dive into chemotherapy quickly after being diagnosed due to the aggressive nature of her cancer. This meant that when people approached us telling us that chemo was poison and would only make her worse- it did absolutely nothing to comfort her. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore other options so being warned about this just made the situation more stressful.

What to do instead
: Here’s how you avoid your information getting lost in the shuffle.  You could say something like, “I know you’re going to have a lot of appointments in the next few weeks while you and your doctors decide on the best course of action.  I just want you to know that there may be some more natural alternatives that they may not discuss with you.  If you’re ever interested in discussing that, I’d be happy to talk to you about it or send you some resources.”  With this sort of sentiment, you’re putting the ball in the other person’s court, and when/if they’re ready, they’ll discuss it with you. All cancer is different because all patients are different. Try not to assume or guess what someone’s treatment plan is and always ask before making suggestions or speaking negatively about something,

Do not: Tell someone with cancer, or their loved ones, what they need to do to cope.

Why not: People are going to handle things in their own way.  Some people need to talk about what’s going on, while others may prefer quiet time.  Someone who I care about dearly tried to tell me how I needed to handle my feelings (I should put in that I wasn’t drinking or using drugs) and it almost ended in a knife fight in the parking lot (possibly a SLIGHT exaggeration.)  I was handling my wife’s diagnosis by being quiet and spending time by myself (when I wasn’t with Maegan) which this person did not agree with.

What to do instead: My best friend gave me a call when he got the news.  I chose not to answer because I didn’t really feel like talking but left me an awesome voice message that basically said, “I just heard the news.  I understand if you don’t feel like talking, but I just want you to know that I’m here if you change your mind.”  Perfect.  Absolutely perfect, dude.  If someone tends to need to process their emotions out loud, the best thing to do is to just sit and listen. Meet them where they are and remember to mindful not to make the conversation about you. Maegan is an extrovert so she spends a lot of time processing with her friends. Her best friend has told her many times “I can’t imagine what you’re feeling. Sometimes I don’t know what to say.” While that may not sound like a profound statement, it comforted Maegan because she knew this person was being genuine and was not trying to throw platitudes around. Maegan felt comfortable saying “that’s okay, I just need you to be here” or “you don’t need to say anything, I just need an ear”.

That covers the bulk of it, but there is a small random list of things we wanted to include:

If you want to reach out and help an individual or family, offer to do specific things.  “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know” is nice, but “I know you’re probably going to be busy; let me know if I can mow your lawn or something to help y’all out” is even better. When someone is stressed and can’t find the energy to mow the lawn, they’re going to remember that you offered to do that for them. Also, sometimes dropping something off or doing something without being asked can be the most appreciated thing. We know you are willing to help, we just don’t ask for it. That’s not always to say we don’t need it, we just sometimes don’t realize we need it until the help shows up.

Maegan is also very passionate about “What are you feeling?” over “How are you feeling?”.  If you ask someone how they’re feeling, they’re probably just going to want to say, “Like shit, because I have cancer” but in most cases (at least with Maegan) it’s “I’m okay!” If you ask “What are you feeling,” they can tell you “I feel nauseous/angry/frustrated/really down today ” etc. Maegan feels this opens up the conversation and she is forced to be more honest with herself and the person asking. You may get those descriptive answers with the former, but if you want a genuine answer, you’re more likely to get it with the latter.

We often hear from people “I wanted to check in/reach out/text/call/support you but I didn’t want to bother you.” Support and positive thoughts are never a bother and they never get in the way. If you genuinely want to check in, please never feel like you’re getting in the way. That being said, if you call or text and you don’t immediately don’t get a response, please see below…

Don’t be offended if you don’t hear back from someone who you’ve reached out to.  Under normal circumstances, it’s definitely considered rude if you text someone and they don’t text you back.  However, if someone has just told the world they have cancer, they’re probably getting a lot of people reaching out and it can become a blur.  That’s not to say that each one isn’t read and valued, but it’s easy to miss texting or emailing someone back.

To piggyback off of not responding- please don’t get offended if you have the same conversation twice or a cancer patient (or family member) doesn’t remember a conversation. There is so much going on for people around treatment days that things can get fuzzy and it’s hard to recall everything you have talked to people about.

That’s all for now.  Thanks for taking the time to read this!  I hope it enriches your life in some way.




6 thoughts on “What to say when you don’t know what to say

  1. tstead33 says:

    You are an impressive human being. Katie and I are praying for you both. I am excited to see you at our tournament soon. Also these words of wisdom are very practical and I will remember them in future situations. I think everyone thinks they have to have the best thing to say when someone is grieving something or going through a tough time. But I totally agree with you or just be there for them and show love to them methodology. I will try my best to do this for you guys. I’m going to bring an extra water bottle for you for the tournament. If you ever need to talk on the phone or text or whatever is easiest ( snapchat) you got my digits.

    Liked by 1 person

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