People with cancer are supposed to be heroic.
We fight a disease that terrifies everyone.
We are strong because we endure treatments that can feel worse than the actual malignancies.
We are brave because our lab tests come back with news we don’t want to hear.
The reality of life with cancer is very different from the image we try to portray.
Our fight is simply a willingness to go through treatment because, frankly, the alternative sucks. Strength? We endure pain and sickness for the chance to feel normal down the road. Brave? We build up an emotional tolerance and acceptance of things we can’t change. Faith kicks in to take care of the rest.
The truth is that if someone you love has cancer, they probably won’t be completely open about what they’re going through because they’re trying so hard to be strong.
However, if they could be truly honest and vulnerable, they would tell you:
1. Don’t wait on me to call you if I need anything. Please call me every once in a while and set up a date and time to come over. I know you told me to call if I ever needed anything, but it’s weird asking others to spend time with me or help me with stuff I used to be able to do on my own. It makes me feel weak and needy, and I’m also afraid you’ll say “no.”
2. Let me experience real emotions. Even though cancer and its treatments can sometimes influence my outlook, I still have normal moods and feelings in response to life events. If I’m angry or upset, accept that something made me mad and don’t write it off as the disease. I need to experience and express real emotions and not have them minimized or brushed off.
3. Ask me “what’s up” rather than “how do you feel.” Let’s talk about life and what’s been happening rather than focusing on my illness.
4. Forgive me. There will be times when the illness and its treatment make me “not myself.” I may be forgetful, abrupt or hurtful. None of this is deliberate. Please don’t take it personally, and please forgive me.
5. Just listen. I’m doing my very best to be brave and strong, but I have moments when I need to fall apart. Just listen and don’t offer solutions. A good cry releases a lot of stress and pressure for me.
6. Take pictures of us. I may fuss about a photo, but a snapshot of us can help get me through tough times. A photo is a reminder that someone thinks I’m important and worth remembering. Don’t let me say “I don’t want you to remember me like this” when treatment leaves me bald or scarred. This is me, who I am RIGHT NOW. Embrace the now with me.
7. I need a little time alone. A few points ago I was talking about how much I need to spend time with you, and now I’m telling you to go away. I love you, but sometimes I need a little solitude. It gives me the chance to take off the brave face I’ve been wearing too long, and the silence can be soothing.
8. My family needs friends. Parenting is hard enough when your body is healthy; it becomes even more challenging when you’re managing a cancer diagnosis with the day-to-day needs of your family. My children, who aren’t mature enough to understand what I’m going through, still need to go to school, do homework, play sports, and hang out with friends. Car-pooling and play dates are sanity-savers for me. Take my kids. Please. My spouse could also benefit from a little time with friends. Grab lunch or play a round of golf together. I take comfort in knowing you care about the people I love.
9. I want YOU to reduce YOUR cancer risk. I don’t want you to go through this. While some cancers strike out of the blue, many can be prevented with just a few lifestyle changes – stop smoking, lose extra weight, protect your skin from sun damage, and watch what you eat. Please go see a doctor for regular check-ups and demand follow-up whenever pain, bleeding or unusual lumps show up. Many people can live long and fulfilling lives if this disease is discovered in its early stages. I want you to have a long and fulfilling life. Please. This is NOT pleasant.
10. Take nothing for granted. Enjoy the life you have right now. Take time to jump in puddles, hug the kids, and feel the wind on your face. Marvel at this amazing world God created, and thank Him for bringing us together.
While we may not be thankful for my cancer, we need to be grateful for the physicians and treatments that give me the chance to fight this thing. And if there ever comes a time when the treatments no longer work, please know that I will always be grateful for having lived my life with you in it. I hope you feel the same about me.
[Kim Helminski Keller is a Dallas-based mom, wife, teacher and journalist. She is currently receiving treatment for thyroid cancer.]