'Don't Be So Negative' and Other Interesting Advice

No one deliberately says something hurtful to someone diagnosed with a disease. But sometimes, it comes out, and it's hard to stop.
01/13/2013 09:50 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2013

It is hard for the one diagnosed to have to deliver the news to others. I still dread telling people what I have been up to this past year if the subject should come up. I dread it mostly because it's a sad tale of woe, and it sucks. I didn't tell everyone (like the lady at the grocery store, or neighbors I don't see very often) and some people think I had the nerve to get a really cool, short hair cut.

No one deliberately says something hurtful to someone diagnosed with a disease. But sometimes, it comes out and it's hard to stop. I could very well have said something stupid to a cancer patient. I have been the recipient of some strange remarks. Not all bad. Mostly powerful, encouraging comments of love and support. But it is amazing what a few shitty comments will do to the soul during such a fragile time. The amount of support needed cannot be underestimated. But how? In what ways? Words? Actions? Food? Gifts? A smile? Information? How do you support someone who is facing the disease of their own body? What do you say? What do you not say?

In a world where quick tidbits of information are the norm, how do you behave when someone needs good, old-fashioned love? In a world of immediate gratification, how do you express how much you care? And what if you are not even close to the person? What if it's just an acquaintance? When you learn someone you know is going through this, perhaps it changes your own life. Perhaps dealing with the subject of illness and death becomes a lesson. It certainly is for the cancer patient. Each day can feel like an impossible mountain to climb.

Most people just want to know what they can do. Accepting help is a lesson for Miss-I-Can-Do-It-All, and offering help (or a kind word) is always a good thing.

After surgery, I was the recipient of some awesome help by way of food delivery using the calendar on www.lotsahelpinghands.com. I didn't have to keep track of a thing. It was wonderful, and I'm grateful. In the early days of shock and disbelief, each day is pretty fragile. It is so important to feed the soul. I made a conscious effort to watch funny movies, listen to my favorite music and during down time after surgery, I read books I had been meaning to get to. Keeping the mind active (and distracted) does wonders.

I was also the recipient of some interesting remarks (sometimes when I least expected it), and I've heard of some doozies by others.

Here, I offer my top 10 dos and don'ts.

Top 10 list of what not to say to your friend who has been diagnosed with cancer:

1. Don't be so negative -- maybe your hair won't fall out.
2. Do you really need to wear that "schmata" (wig) in the house -- isn't it hot?
3. I threw up after my mastectomy.
4. My peach fuzz hair fell out after my last chemo.
5. You know you shouldn't eat any sugar, right?
6. Don't use antiperspirant.
7. You must wake up every day and think you're in a terrible nightmare.
8. Do you feel awful?
9. I was shocked when I found out about you.
10. I'd go without a wig if it were me.

Top 10 list of things to say (or do):

1. Send a basket of food -- no spices or grease. Healthy soup is a good one.
2. Send a thoughtful or humorous card. (I received many that I will always treasure.)
3. Talk about someone who is at least five years out and doing really well.
4. Compliment on an article of clothing or piece of jewelry.
5. Tell the person you are thinking of them every day and sending positive thoughts in their direction.
6. Tell them you are visualizing their well-being and sending them love.
7. Give them a hug.
8. Put a date in your calendar to call them -- and call them -- just to say hi, or email them just to say hi. (This sounds so simple, but receiving a call or message is a wonderful connection during a time that feels so disconnected.)
9. Tell them something really funny, or recommend funny movies. (Cancer patients actually do laugh.)
10. Pray for them, and tell them that you will.

Sometimes, the patient doesn't even know what they need or want. And it is hard for family and friends to feel helpless. If you find you have said or done something unintentionally awkward (it's understandable), own it, and then do or say something better next time. There are many opportunities during the course of cancer treatment to create something positive. You can't talk away the actual disease, but you can be loving. You can just listen. You can offer something (an invitation to a yoga class perhaps) and let that person decide if they wish to take you up on it. If they don't, do not despair. Whatever goodness you put out there is ultimately appreciated. You can add to that person's ability to get through each day. That is a gift worth giving.

(What is a schmata you ask? An old Yiddish word. From Urban Dictonary: Mainly used to describe a cheap, raggedy piece of clothing.)

For more by Alicia Garey, click here.

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