The Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Someone Who’s (Scary) Sick

In August 2014, I heard the word “cancer,” and it was directed at me. Actual, real me. If you’ve ever wondered what goes through a person’s mind 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 scared for myself, yes, but I was more scared for everyone else.

Dealing with worrying friends and family is much harder than dealing with the sickness itself. Wondering how people are going to look at you and talk to you and treat you is a very real thing.

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. A few weeks after my diagnosis and surgeries, I started jotting down things people did that I loved and things they didn’t do that I wish they’d done.

I hope this helps those of you who, like me prior to cancer, feel helpless in knowing how to help others 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, “Lots of other people are texting them, so I don’t need to.”

I read every single text and letter I received, and each one touched me in a different way. Most of the tears I shed during my thyroid cancer journey were due to the outpouring of love I received from others.

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, energy, emotion, or words to reply. It can be overwhelming to feel like you have a list of people to update, 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.

Don’t feel awkward.

Here’s the deal: everything you say will be right, and everything you say will be wrong.

After his wife’s death, C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, “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 bring it up (because gosh, can’t they just talk about anything else?). And you hate if they don’t (because seriously, they’re going to pretend 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.

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 people strive to know the deep-down-real-stuff.

It’s like Celine says in 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.”

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, CDs, and jewelry. It may sound superficial, but there’s something very real about gift-giving. Being showered with physical representations of people’s love makes the hard parts of sickness easier.

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. 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 distract them from worry. They really do.

But you need to know that hardly anything will be as significant 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.

Your health becomes this sort of all-consuming presence—a “cancer haze” is what I called it. 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.

I remember going about my days just yearning for someone to ask how this experience was impacting my faith. I felt like I was just about to burst with thoughts.

Scary sickness makes you see the world and your faith in a new light—so make sure you ask about it.

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