I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer two years ago.
It was a confusing whirlwind where I felt more alive than ever, then flushed with the irony of that, became scared and isolated. And then I just wanted everything to go back to normal.
What I realized very quickly is that people don’t know what to say when something like this happens. And as someone who’s been on the other side, I thought I’d write a little bit about what helped me and what didn’t.
Listen and follow their lead.
When I wanted to talk about it, I talked about it. When I didn’t, I didn’t. If I’m not talking about it with you, I’ve made that choice.
There is a circling-the-wagons thing that happens with a cancer diagnosis, and the information and the fear and the mood swings can only be entrusted to the very top tier of one’s support system. If you are a friend of someone diagnosed with cancer and all they want to do is talk about work problems and good books they’ve read and this one brunch place they’re loving right now… let them. They’re not in denial and they don’t need you to brave the waters of talking about The Cancer. They need time off from The Cancer and the service you’re providing by letting them not talk about it is invaluable.
Prayers and good thoughts. Talismans and good luck charms. A stiff drink and nice big popcorn movie. Normalcy becomes the hottest commodity when one’s life has been hijacked.
Be ready for “weird.”
A cancer diagnosis feels like the most surreal thing in the world. It’s not an easy thing to process — if we can ever truly process it at all. You might not feel sick. You might not look sick. And now you’re being told there’s essentially a time bomb in your body… so you know, come back in a week and we’ll take some blood. NO! GET IT OUT RIGHT NOW?
And you have to make plans and keep showing up to work and follow orders and act like it’s not a big deal for your worried loved ones and be positive about it because you totally got it in time and what a blessing and all you can think about is going back to a time when you didn’t have cancer.
So you’re off. You know you’re off, too. You can’t get into the groove of things. And you want to keep apologizing, which, for me, comes out like, “I know I’m weird, just…” Because when you are a friend to someone who has been diagnosed, they aren’t going to know what’s happening either.
When you get a diagnosis, you’ve been told some crazy stuff about how your life is going to be in the coming months. It’s like the worst, most morbid Choose Your Own Adventure book ever. “Has your cancer spread to the lymph nodes? Turn to page 76!” Either you’re going to be fine or you’re… not. And that information hits you in waves.
You never know when it’s coming it’s just… you know when you think of some really embarrassing stuff you did back in the day? And that flush sweeps across your face? That’s what it feels like. The paralyzing fear.
So, let your friend be weird. They don’t know why they’re like that either.
Please don’t tell me that meditation really worked for you. Don’t tell me to marvel at trees because none of us knows how long we’re going to be here. Please don’t quote Eckhart Tolle and implore me to “find the joy.” Also, please don’t assume that I haven’t found my own ministry during this hard time.
Instead of trying to arrogantly educate me on what you’d do in the hypothetical, why don’t you listen to me about what I’m actually doing in the reality of it. Because you don’t have cancer. I do. So your platitudes about the evils of gluten and the wondrous qualities of kale sound so stupid to someone thinking about dying.
Please understand that there is a difference between what you expect from your life in the best of times and what I’m muddling through in the worst phases of mine. And I know. You read this article once where… I don’t care. I really don’t. I really don’t want to sit across a table from you and listen to what more you think I should be doing to fight for my life. Save it. It really is wildly tone deaf and most of all? Doesn’t help.
Complicated isn’t bad.
People really wanted me to be OK. Are you OK? I wonder if she’s OK.
Thing is, I wasn’t going to be OK right then. And that turned out to not necessarily be a bad thing.
Having cancer changed the course of my life. It made me think differently and live differently. On a cellular level. And that wasn’t an easy thing to excavate. It really was a trial by fire.
So, if your friend doesn’t seem OK? It’s complicated. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not something you think you need to talk to them about. They may not be “sad” — they could be thinking about their life and how they’ve lived it and how they want to live differently. Maybe they’re getting angry. That’s a good thing. Maybe they’re overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and feeling grateful. It’s all such a majestically beautiful, terrible Jackson Pollack painting.
Feelings are good. Feelings are messy. And feelings make us grow. Let your friend feel. Let your friend not be OK. Let your friend be comfortable in the not OK.
Talk about the right now.
It’s hard not to tell your friend that everything is going to be OK. We feel like we’re helping by shrugging off their worries and lightening the mood with “But you’re going to be fine!” It might not be. And also? It’s not all that fine right now.
The best thing someone did for me was to just be the calm flight attendant on the plane telling me where the exits are. They’re not fazed. They’re not worried. They’re hearing me, they’re providing copious amounts of tea and making sure that I have a blankie. They’re right here, right now. They’re pragmatic and sympathetic.
How was the appointment? Let’s talk about that. What’s up with that ham-fisted phlebotomist? Stay in the moment. Feel what’s happening now and talk about this moment on the checklist. Lighten the mood when you think it needs it or just listen and let them see your concern.
I think it’s actually the toughest tightrope to walk because it demands that you experience what’s happening in real time with your friend and most importantly understand that it’s not about you. By staying in the moment and not defaulting to a day when everything is going to be OK, you are telling your friend that you’re in this and moreover, you’re not going to be bringing your psyche to the party. This isn’t going to be about making you feel better. This isn’t going to be about acting fine so you don’t worry. This is just two people going through some scary stuff, making sure your seatbelt is buckled safely and that the drinks cart is on its way.
Also, don’t tell me I should start checking things off my Bucket List or Carpe Diem! Let’s not act like I have one foot in the grave.
Don’t get off on my drama.
You can sniff ’em out on Facebook. You have suspicions. We all know them. The Drama Vampires.
There’s a part of you that actually thinks they’ll hold it together when your diagnosis comes down. They couldn’t make this about them… No? That’s… I mean, how… And then you’re sitting across from them and reassuring them and making sure they’re fine and making sure they’re taken care of during this trying time. THEIR FRIEND HAS CANCER, GUYS. Uh, yeah. You know. You’re the friend.
If you’re one of these people, it comes down to one simple question: Is the drama and attention you’re receiving worth more to you than the friend you are most certainly going to lose? Because cancer has a way of clarifying things. And a friend selfish enough to make your diagnosis about them is going to be the first one on the chopping block.
Furthermore, your friend’s cancer diagnosis is theirs to tell. Not yours. You should never divulge someone else’s diagnosis just so you can feel important or in-the-know. It’s a breach of trust. You’re not helping your friend; you’re feeding your own ego.
In the end, your friend is still your friend. And I think that’s the most important thing to remember: yes, this is a particularly challenging time but it’s not the only thing about them.
Make sure to let them be something other than A Person With Cancer. Help them remember this, because sometimes when you’re in the thick of it, that’s all you fear you are.
Liza Palmer is an author living in Los Angeles.