What to do and not do when someone is scary sick

One year ago today, I heard the word “cancer,” and it was directed at me. ME. Like actual, real me. If you’ve ever wondered what goes through people’s minds when they hear that word, I’ll tell you. Or at least I’ll tell you what went through mine:

Oh no, I have to tell people, and they’re going to panic.

I was freaked out for myself, but I was more freaked out for everyone else. That might not make complete sense, but it’s true. Dealing with upset and worrying family and friends is much harder than dealing with yourself. Worrying how people are going to look at you and talk to you and treat you is a very real thing. It’s crazy how one word can do that. One word.

With one word, I switched from “helper” to “needs help.” And I had to learn how to receive it. I also learned a lot about what actually helps and what doesn’t. Though I truly (from the bottom of my heart) appreciate every single thing everyone said or did or gave last year, there are some things that helped more than others. And it’s hard to know what those things are until you’ve actually been on the “needs help” side yourself.

So a few weeks after my diagnosis and surgeries, I started jotting down notes of things that people did that I loved or things they didn’t do that I wish they’d done. I hope this helps those of you who—like me one year ago—feel helpless in knowing how to help those who are scary sick. Not just “sick,” but sick sick—in the way Sprite and Advil can’t cure.

THE DON’Ts

Don’t give yourself the excuse, “Tons of other people are texting them, so I don’t need to.”
I read every single text and letter I received. And every single one touched me in a different way. Most of the tears I shed during the course of my thyroid cancer journey were over the outpouring of love I received from others. It means a lot. Do it.

Don’t be offended if it takes them days to reply or if the reply seems lame.
Though I read everything, I often didn’t have the time or energy or emotion or words to reply. It can get overwhelming to feel like you have so so many people to update and thank and fill-in constantly. So be patient and gracious if you don’t get a response that’s as timely or thorough as you’d hoped for.

Don’t feel awkward.
Here’s the deal: everything you say will be right, and everything you say will be wrong. The best way I can explain is with a C.S. Lewis quote from A Grief Observed. Lewis wrote right after the death of his wife, “I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll say something about it or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.” When you have a heavy word like “cancer” written across your forehead, you know people see it whenever they look at you. You hate if they do bring it up (because gosh, can’t they just talk about anything else?). And you hate if they don’t bring it up (because seriously, they’re going to pretend like this isn’t happening right now?). The best advice I can give is to strike a balance between concern and normalcy, and just not feel awkward about anything. Speak truth and speak in love, and let it happen.

Don’t be afraid to go deep and ask specific questions.
The general, “How are you feeling?” is good, but it’s difficult to answer. It’s tough to gauge if the asker is simply being kind or truly wants to know how good or horrible you’re feeling. The best questions I received were the ones like, “What’s been the hardest part?” “What are you most scared of?” “What’s been easier than you expected?” “How has it been for your family?” When you’re scary sick, it’s easy to feel lonely—not because no one cares, but because no one understands exactly how you feel. And it means so much when someone strives to know the deep-down-real-stuff. It’s like this quote from the movie Before Sunrise, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.” It means SO much when someone tries to understand, even if they never fully can.

 

THE DOs

Do send a gift.
Sounds super easy, and it is. I never cared very much about gifts until I was diagnosed and started receiving everything from flowers to candy to socks to CDs and jewelry…and all of it meant a lot to me. Even though it may sound superficial, there’s something really real about gift-giving. Being showered with physical representations of people’s love makes the hard parts of sickness easier.

Do actually pray.
I cannot stress this enough. I felt people’s prayers and saw evidence of them in my life, even when things weren’t going great. I was flooded with overwhelming peace because I knew people were interceding for me when I didn’t always have the energy to intercede for myself. When someone is scary sick, please actually pray for them. And pray with them—out loud. And text them prayers, and pray over the phone. Don’t worry that you don’t know what to say. We don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. Prayer changes things.

Do check in even after the hardest part has passed.
Every part of being scary sick is difficult—from waiting to get diagnosed, to having surgery or treatment, to healing up afterwards and processing what just happened. Sometimes the processing part can be more emotionally draining than the physical toll. So make sure you continue to remember someone even after they’re out of the woods. Getting well can be just as big of a culture shock as getting sick.

Do understand that this illness is their life now.
Yes, they care about your dog’s day camp and your son’s scraped knee, and they do want to hear stories that will take the focus off of them. They really do. But you need to know that hardly anything will be as significant to them as the fact that their body is rebelling against them. Maslow had a point with the whole hierarchy of needs thing…physical well-being is the baseline for all humans—the most vital thing. And when that need feels jeopardized, nothing else seems to matter much. When your health is failing, it’s hard to make yourself care as deeply as you used to about other things, so your health becomes this sort of all-consuming presence. A “cancer haze” is what I called it. So as a loved one, just know that the haze exists.

Do ask how their spiritual life has changed or how they see the world differently.
During the month between my surgeries, I remember going about my day just yearning for someone to ask how this experience was impacting my faith. I felt like I was just about to burst with thoughts. I specifically prayed one morning that someone would ask me how my faith had changed, and God answered my prayer through a coworker that afternoon. She intentionally asked how I was doing then got to the important stuff, asking how my sickness was shaping my walk with Christ. Scary sickness makes you see the world and the Lord in a new light—so make sure you ask about it.

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