Tips on how to react when someone tells you they have cancer

Sadly, most of us will have to face listening to someone telling us they have cancer at some stage in our lives, and it got me thinking how I have reacted in the past when people have told me they had cancer. Not well I am ashamed to say.  So, being on the other end of the conversation, I can now give you some tips!

1. Listen, hold the persons hand, hug and let them talk, talk, talk.  I yacked on for ever.  Repeating information helps you come to terms with what’s happening to you and face your new reality. Be a good listener.

2. Be patient, wait your time! I recommend only telling those you need support from initially. This is a really personal thing and you need to just be prepared to watch and wait a bit. The first few weeks after diagnosis, the person will be dealing with a huge deluge of terrifying information and will be in total shock and the last thing they need is to be dealing with and reassuring other people. There will be plenty of time later to call or visit.  Cancer is a long journey and not everyone can be there at the start, but you will sure need them along the way.

3. Sort out your role in all this.  I have been so lucky and been spoilt rotten here.  You need someone to research the information you need on the web, positive case studies etc.  The person suffering should NOT be allowed unsupervised trawling of the web as stuff you read in those first dark weeks will stick like glue and eat away at your brain at night! Someone to shop and cook for you and your children if you have them.  Someone to take you out for coffees and be your mate.  Someone to keep you healthy, finding out best food to eat, best supplements to take etc.

4. Go along to consultations with them.  Never let anyone you love face this alone.  I had an army with me, my partner, my mum and dad and brother.  The consultant needed to call for extra chairs.  Write down or better still record the consultation and listen hard as shock warps the memory.  Take in a list of questions.  And be ready with a brandy and hug.  My consultant was an amazing surgeon but had no bedside manner – this is normal!  If like me, you read everyones body language you will be horrified!  Mine sucked in his cheeks, shook his head when he talked and sighed when looking at my notes.  Not helpful!

5. Send them nice stuff through the post.  I am childishly excited now when the postman comes!  He has become a new friend and comments on my post, one recent package tickled him  “Rachel, wonder women, Bown” came with a pair of wonder women pants!  You have no idea how lovely it is to receive new cards and messages of support.  I often re-read these.  My BF Jenny has exhausted moonpigs collection and when I can figure out how to scan them in, will display them! 

And finally try to do this with the minimum of fuss.  Be calm, make decisions if the person is not able to and just be present. 

Do not tell them about people you know who have had cancer and died (yes I did have that little gem), do not give them inspirational books of people who had died (yes I did have that suggestion), do not say “I have never known anyone dying of cancer… and cry” … yes I did experience that.

Or how could I forget.. the all time best welcome from a cancer support charity “We are from the end of life and terminal care department”.  Goodbye.

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