On Daffodils and the Elephant in the Room
Cancer. The giant C word. It’s an awful business. And it’s often been described as the ‘elephant in the room’. I know so many dear people who are battling the cruelty of cancer right now. We all do. Sadly it’s everywhere. Today in New Zealand it is Daffodil Day. Daffodil Day is the Cancer Society’s most important fundraising and awareness campaign in the country. As well as providing an opportunity to raise awareness of cancer in New Zealand, Daffodil Day is a major source of funding for the Cancer Society. Yes this fundraiser is a little controversial due to the testing of cancer drugs on animals. But whether you are against this fundraiser or you would happily shake a bucket on Daffodil Day, we all want to support those who are going through cancer. And their loved ones.
Even health professionals can feel awkward about having cancer conversations with patients who are newly diagnosed. And if we are a friend, neighbour or family member of someone who is suffering, it can also be hard to gauge whether the person with cancer wants hugs and a listening ear, or whether they simply want to be left alone. Perhaps they don’t want to reiterate their story to every person they meet at the supermarket. What do we say? What do we not say?
Most cancer patients report that they find out who their real friends are while they are undergoing treatment. And if we want to be that caring, empathetic friend, our support needs to be tailor made to suit the person. Firstly, we can aim to be wholly present for the person. We can arm ourselves with information (from credible sources) and learn more about the diagnosis before we communicate with our friend. The person with cancer may not want to talk about the details for many reasons. If there is information that is unknown or not shared, don’t push for more. Prepare yourself for changes in the person’s appearance. Instead of commenting on appearance, perhaps start your visit by saying “It’s good to see you” instead of commenting on any physical changes.
- Ask permission—before visiting, and before asking questions. Try not to give advice. And make it clear that saying no is okay.
- Make plans for the future—this gives your friend something positive to look forward to. Flexible plans can be easily changed in case something comes up or your friend needs to cancel or reschedule.
- Be comfortable with sadness—do not ignore uncomfortable topics or feelings. Listen and reflect back with they are saying.
- Make time for a weekly check-in phone call. Let your friend know when you will be calling, and let your friend know that it is okay to not answer the phone.
- Offer to help with practical tasks, such as taking care of children, taking care of a pet, or preparing a meal. Many people find it hard to ask for help, and your friend will likely appreciate the offer. However, if your friend declines an offer, try not to take it personally. Many of us find it hard to receive help for one reason or another. There are many great online tools that make help coordination easier. See: http://www.lotsahelpinghands.com http://www.takethemameal.com and http://www.mealtrain.com.
- Here are some other suggestions of practical help:
- Shop for groceries and pick up prescriptions.
- Help with chores around the house, such as getting the mail, taking care of pets, cleaning, doing laundry, taking care of plants and flowers, and taking out the rubbish.
- Delivering meals and baking in disposable containers.
- Schedule a night of takeaways and movies together.
- Baby-sit children, take them to and from school and evening activities, and arrange for play dates.
- Organize a phone chain and/or support team to check on your friend regularly.
- Call, email, or text regularly. Let your friend know it’s okay if he or she doesn’t reply.
- Drive your friend to an appointment. You can take notes during a doctor’s appointment or keep your friend company during a treatment session.
- Go for a walk together.
- Think about the little things your friend enjoys and makes life “normal” for them. This could be helping to decorate for a holiday or weeding the garden. If there is something your friend would usually do, there are many ways you can make it a bit easier for him or her to do it.
- Offer to pray for the person. Here is a prayer app that helps one to remember to pray for those on a prayer list. See: app.prayermate.net
- Follow through on a commitment to help.
- As much as possible, treat the person the same way you always have. Ask about interests, hobbies, and other topics not related to cancer—people with cancer sometimes need a break from talking about their illness.
- I know just how you feel.
- You need to talk.
- ‘You’re so brave’ or ‘You’re so strong’. This puts pressure on the person to pretend that they are always brave.
- I know just what you should do.
- I feel helpless.
- I don’t know how you manage.
- I’m sure you’ll be fine.
- Don’t worry.
- How much time do the doctors give you?
- How long do you have?
- Let me know what I can do. (Instead, offer specific ways you can help or other things you can provide if they need it.)
- I’m so sorry this has happened to you.
- If you ever feel like talking, I am here to listen.
- What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help?
- I care about you.
- I’m thinking about you.
- I don’t know what to say. (It is better to be honest than to simply stop calling or visiting because you feel uncomfortable).
Giving a gift is one way to show you care about someone, but be mindful not to give your friend anything that advocates a specific treatment as a cure for cancer. It’s important to respect their treatment choices and their coping process, whether it is how you would cope in the same situation or not. Keep gifts tailor made to your friend.
Some ideas include:
- Magazines, audio books, novels, books of short stories, or gift cards to purchase reading material
- CDs or gift cards for downloadable music
- DVDs of movies, TV shows, or documentaries
- Accessories (earrings, bracelets, scarves, ties, hats), makeup, or beauty items
- Note cards or a journal
- A video message from family and friends
- Gift certificates for massage, spa services, restaurants, or museum/art gallery passes
- Gift cards to grocery stores
- A housecleaning service
- Craft or hobby supply kits (scrapbooking, drawing)
- Pajamas or robe, lingere
- Flowers or plants
- A weekend away at a holiday house
Sometimes we may wish to send a card to someone suffering with cancer. But many cards have inappropriate wording on them. Here are some fabulous cards for cancer sufferers. The slogans say it all. See:
We can also honour our friend by making contributions to related charities, or raising money through sites such as Givealittle: http://www.givealittle.co.nz.
If the person agrees, we could plan a party when treatment is finished or on anniversary dates. Always check with the person with cancer before making party plans, and show them the list of those to be invited.
Loved ones of those with cancer will also need just as much support. A cancer diagnosis is just as devastating for a spouse or loved one. The above tips can apply to spouses and loved ones too.
To make a donation this Daffodil Day, please see: http://www.daffodilday.org.nz.