THE BLOG
10/08/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How to Reach Out to a Cancer Patient

When trying to explain what it's like to battle cancer, it's possible to sound optimistic, naive, ungrateful, bratty, confused and hopeful all in the same sentence. I've acted this way many times, especially the bratty part (I have to get as much of that in before I turn 30, after which it'll just be sad).

Above all, I am thankful and overwhelmed. Those two sentiments seem to fit everything, from undergoing treatments to dealing with other people's reactions to my diagnosis. Especially the latter. After I made my diagnosis public, I received phone calls, texts, Facebook messages, cards, Care Bears coloring books, stickers stolen from friends' nieces and nephews, DVDs, and hugs.

I have an amazing support group, and being able to fully realize this has been a wonderful side effect of being open about my cancer diagnosis.

Then there's the down side. I've had to explain that I will be just fine, I am not an invalid, and I will not break any bones if I attempt to work out at the gym. I've been on the opposite end of pity stares, daily "How are you feeling?" questionnaires, and whispers of the "C-word." I promise that tumors don't grow bigger if you say "cancer." They are not Beetlejuice. It's okay to use the big kid word.

Though it can be frustrating to repeat yourself to friends and family, the most extreme negative reactions are generally saved for the people who have suddenly come out of the woodwork. I'm confused as to why people I rarely, if ever, spoke to now care about my well-being. Where were they when I was healthy and just wanted to grab a cup of coffee?

All of this love and confusion has helped me come up with a handy list regarding the appropriate ways to react if you hear someone has cancer. I like to call it, "How to Not Have a Cancer Patient Wring Your Neck."

  • If you are a blood relative, best friend, good buddy, pal I ask favors of relentlessly, or person I've said "I love you" to (that goes for family, friends, and ghosts of boyfriends past, present and future): Feel free to check in and see how I'm doing on a regular basis. I cannot fully express my complete gratitude towards those who have backed off until I communicated with them first, waited for me to text back rather than guilt me into responding, or called every few days or weeks. Not daily. Never daily. It's a fine line that can easily be crossed, but it's nothing that can't be handled with patience, understanding, and hopefully humor from both parties.
  • If I have known you since preschool, kindergarten, or middle school softball; worked with you at some point after college; or were once close with me but then life happened: If you want to drop a line to say you heard the sucky news or read my blog, that's awesome. I appreciate the kind words and support. I really do. I also appreciate that you know better than to suddenly start checking in all the time, because that would be weird. This is also a fine line, but it's a walkable one.
  • If I have known you for less than one year; are in the same friend circle but we're not close; don't know you at all except that you may have worked with my parents or my great aunt's cousin's best friend's mother-in-law; or you are just a crazy person: Please do not use every single technological advancement in existence to reach out to me or give me unsolicited advice. If I have heard from you via text, phone call, Facebook message, Facebook like, Facebook status comment, and tweet, then there is a solid chance that you are driving me to close to insanity, and I don't need to get any closer. Again, I appreciate the concern, but this goes for everyone sick or healthy: Let a girl breathe! Constant communication will make me want to shake you and ask, "Who didn't pay attention to you as a child?" Do not cross on, step, or look at the line that is now so fine, it's nearly microscopic.

As for the unsolicited advice, I get it. Everyone knows someone who had cancer, which is unfortunate in its own right. While I am glad to hear that these people are now doing well, I don't want to talk to them. They are strangers. Do you want to talk to strangers? I also don't want to read the self-help books I didn't ask you about, articles in obscure journals, or blogs riddled with typos. If I or any other cancer patient needs help, we'll ask for it.

Okay, I probably won't. But I'll think about it.

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