Cancer Is Hard; Don’t Tell Me to Be Strong

I was writing a paper on the Populist movement in a study room with one of my closest friends when I got a call from my mom. My mom and I are close, so getting a call from her in the middle of the day wasn’t out of the ordinary. While I was trying to multitask having a conversation and doing my homework, I froze when she said the words “emergency room.” I set aside my computer and asked if I needed to come home immediately. The word “Leukemia” confirmed my decision.

My parents and I are a package deal. If one of us goes through something, we’re going through it together. When my mom called me to tell me that my seemingly healthy, The Godfather movie-loving, tough as nails dad was diagnosed with leukemia, a blood cancer that creates abnormal blood cells that overwhelm healthy ones, my world changed in an instant. This experience has taught me a lot about how people treat you after a tragedy, and I would like to offer seven easy ways to treat someone who’s loved one is battling serious illness.

1. Lighten up on phrases like “Stay strong.”

Imagine going through the worst time of your life. Think of how emotional, weak, and exhausted you would feel trying to get through your daily life when all you can think about is how life took a 180. Now imagine that everyone around you is shouting “Stay Strong!” “It could be worse!” “At least it’s not x/y/z!” This is what it feels like to be on the inside of the crowd of people who only mean to support you, but aren’t sure of how to do it in a less aggressive, “pull it together” kind of way. Although I know everyone who has told me the following phrases mean the absolute best for me, it can be frustrating to be constantly reminded to be strong when all you feel is weak.

2. Try not to bring it up someone’s situation unless the person going through it initiates the conversation.

Although most people’s intentions are to be respectful in asking how a loved one who’s sick is doing, this results in the person receiving the condolences to be viewed in a different light. Think about it, if everyone you interacted with on a daily basis wanted to talk about your sick loved one, you’d end up dwelling on an upsetting situation all day long. Sometimes it’s just better to let the person experiencing the situation start the conversation.

3. Do something nice for them.

So many people I know have offered to take care of me in ways I didn’t even think I would need. For example, if you have a car and your friend having a rough time doesn’t, offer to take them to the nearest bus stop or even home for a weekend. Nice gestures can be anything at all that the person might need, but wouldn’t think to ask help with. Another way to show you care is to have a lunch date with your friend and pay for their meal. A free way to show your appreciation for someone experiencing a rough patch is to tag them in a wholesome meme, send them a video you think they’d like, or make a playlist of songs that make them feel their best. In many cases, serious illnesses are totally out of the blue, and to be honest, no one’s bank account is ever ready for chemotherapy, surgeries, or a month-long hospital stay. My roommate and her family surprised me with groceries one day. I cried. Small unexpected gestures of care are so appreciated.

4. Encourage them to seek help if you think they need it.

I’m personally someone who loves to have it together, and I tend to stray from seeking help. My friends and family stepped in when they noticed that my circumstances were causing me to feel overwhelmed, exhausted and anxious. I was encouraged me to speak to an academic advisor about my hectic schedule and go to the Counselling and Wellness center to get my mental health back on track. I would have eventually gotten around to making an appointment, but with the support and gentle reminders from my friends and family, I made one quickly and felt SO much better after the appointment. Instead of pushing someone to open up or become proactive about their situation, encourage them to take advantage of the resources around them.

5. Respect them and their emotions.

During a time when someone’s loved one is seriously ill, that person is probably feeling many conflicting emotions at the same time. It’s possible to get anywhere from two to three pieces of major news within an hour, and unfortunately this is extremely inconvenient for a student with a busy schedule, or anyone trying to restore normalcy to their life. As someone who always tried to keep it together, not letting my emotions out was causing me to fall apart. There were times when I would receive information about my dad and I would just break down and cry in the middle of class, the library or wherever I was at the moment. Please keep in mind that people grieve differently, and not everyone wants attention when crying, a tissue shoved in their face, or a smothering hug. I’ve found that throughout this experience I have become more emotionally distant from my friends than before, and prefer to be asked if I need to talk, a tissue or a hug. Try asking the person how they would like to be supported. It will avoid any awkwardness and immediately make the person more likely to be vulnerable and give them the confidence to steer the conversation in whatever way they choose.

6. Be there for them, even if you’re not close or have lost touch over the years.

I had no idea how many people I know would reach out to support me through my father’s diagnosis and treatment. Childhood friends, friends from high school and people who I met through the internet reached out to me to let me that my family was their thoughts. I was so touched to know that people I used to talk to years ago took the time to tell me that I was in their prayers. When a tragic situation takes place, old grudges or timelines of conversations need to go out the window. Try to step up and encourage someone.

7. Be mindful of their beliefs.

Be wary of saying “I’m praying for you and your family” if you don’t really know the person or aren’t sure where their spiritual or religious beliefs lie. I’m a Christian, so I’m comfortable to hear that people are praying for me and my family. In fact, pray it up for us! However, not everyone shares the same religion as I do, or is open with their faith background. I have non-spiritual and non-religious friends who have lost a loved one and are appreciative of condolences, but feel uncomfortable when religion is brought up. Instead, try saying, “You’re in my thoughts and I’m here to support you if you need it.” Remember that not everyone copes or heals the same way, and that religious beliefs should be left out if you’re unsure of where they lie.

Though my dad’s diagnosis with Acute Myeloid Leukemia has been the lowest valley in my life, this experience has changed my perspective for the better. I am more aware of small moments of happiness, and I allow myself to be emotional whenever the urge strikes. Although I felt hopeless when my family and I started to climb this mountain, I know that the support of others, help of professionals, and positive attitude for the days ahead have brought me to a better place than I was before. If someone you know is experiencing a traumatic situation, I encourage you to respect and support them.