Recently, someone I love got the heart-stopping phone call from his doctor’s office: “Dr. X would like to see you in his office right away about the lab results from your recent blood panel.” At that moment, he knew his life was about to change. He didn’t yet know how or how much, but with that first call, he knew his life might never be the same.
We don’t tend to get those calls when we are in the first half of life, but once we pass 60, life starts to get less certain. Although most of us would like to think otherwise, life in our later years can become very tenuous and fragile. Now in my early 70s, I’ve lost several good friends, two to cancer, one to multiple sclerosis, and a fourth who is still living, but hasn’t known me for over a decade.
The previous ones hurt, but I’m struggling mightily with this most recent one. I don’t know exactly where it’s going yet, but biopsies will tell the tale in a week or so. I know I could have been the one to get the call, but it wasn’t me, it was my loved one, and I feel helpless and a bit lost.
Looking to the future, I sought some guidance from organizations whose role is to help the loved ones of cancer patients be supportive. I learned that people who are undergoing cancer treatments may be sad one moment and then angry the next, followed by a period of just wanting to be alone. The range of typical emotions of cancer patients is vast. Typical are:
For those of us who are bystanders, understanding this array of emotions can be helpful in choosing the best ways to support them. People are often afraid they will say or do the wrong thing, but if we are open and honest with our own feelings, we can often be at our supportive best.
· If you feel awkward, say so. Acknowledge the situation rather than pretending it’s not occurring
· Touch goes a long way. Depending on your relationship to the cancer patient, offer a hug, a hand squeeze, or a touch on the shoulder
· Send cards, call, text – let them know you are thinking of them
· Offer your support at all phases of the diagnosis and treatment and afterward
· Share a funny anecdote, laugh with them when the moment seems right. Your conversation might be about anything you have in common. They are probably sick and tired of talking about cancer
· Treat your friend or loved one the way you have always treated them. Just because they are dealing with cancer doesn’t mean they have had a personality or brain transplant.
And here are some don’ts that I found:
· Don’t offer unsolicited advice.
· Don’t share your negative thoughts about their treatment protocol.
· If they are sad, don’t try to cheer them up.
· Don’t touch if they indicate it is unwanted.
· Don’t try to fill the silence with words.
· Don’t attempt to hide your own feelings; share them
For me, this is all still premature. The biopsies have not yet been analyzed, the prognosis is still a mystery, and so I wait, and he waits. I’m fairly certain the above advice will come in handy down the road, and it is comforting to have found many good sources online for how to be supportive.
I dedicate this blog post to all the readers who have gone through the agonizing game of waiting, of wanting to do something, and feeling absolutely helpless.