How To: Treat A Person Who Has Cancer

When I was going through cancer treatment, one of the things that drove me the most insane/led to me trying to write about it, was the fact that instantly, because I had this disease, I was treated in a myriad of confusing and upsetting ways by seemingly everyone around me. From the moment I got my diagnosis, I had to contend with numerous people acting as though I wasn’t ill at all, like this pesky cancer was just a speed bump, and as long as I “think positive” I can “beat it” (nervous, well meaning  person smiles as though they've given you a tidbit that makes any actual sense). It’s incredibly frustrating to know you are very ill, to be terrified, and have virtually no one around you acknowledge that you are completely in the sh*t. It just isolates you even further on your little cancer island.  

But it’s what we do as a culture I guess. I'm not sure if it’s worse in Britain or what; I was in the fairly unique position of having treatment for my disease in a country I’d only lived in for two years, with no close friends or family around. My oldest friends sent care packages and kind words, but to be honest when you’re that kind of distance away other people’s suffering feels less tangible I guess. I don’t know. I certainly felt very alone with it, not to make anyone feel bad, truly, and when I went home shortly after treatment I was deeply touched by the outpouring of love and real desire to talk about what I was going through by so many of my loved ones. Because I wasn’t used to it. 

I do think in America we are a tiny bit less delicate about tip toeing around the bad stuff. I made the mistake once of going to a party during my chemotherapy treatment. I obviously wasn’t thinking I would be the belle of the ball, but I also wasn't prepared for suddenly being such an "other" in the room. People no longer knew how to talk to me, so they ignored me. These were friends, but not friends I'd known for very long, and it made me realize that we did not have the level of connection required to weather this particular storm. I felt isolated and more alone than had I stayed home by myself. Not that I expected anyone to listen to my barfing battle stories; I would have quite liked to cut loose and have fun too actually, but there was one of the clearest lines drawn I’ve ever felt in my life: We are here to have fun, and your situation is making us uncomfortable.

I know it was unintentional and simply a case of people not knowing what to say. And also probably had a lot to do with our age - people my age (29 at the time) don't commonly get cancer. I feel like if it has happened twenty or even ten years later maybe I wouldn't have been such a terrifying prospect to people. But I'm not alone, and my particular type of lymphoma (Mediastinal), is most common in women in their late 20's/early 30's. It's why I want to talk about it, because I wish it could be better for anyone else going through this.

So yeah, on top of the physical toll, cancer is isolating and it sucks, unless you’re very lucky and have family and loved ones nearby. And I was very lucky in most of the ways that matter. My husband could not have been more caring or supportive or awesome in every way. My Mom flew over every chance she got. But mostly, it was me, figuring out how to deal with it, alone. And I was continually surprised at just what a huge gap there is between the ill and the not ill. 

Months of off and on sleep. Endless long nights of worry and stress. Just want some answers but I know in God's time, It will all work out. In His time and His way but in the mean time, He will provide the strength that I need to get us through it ALL!!!!!

I am as capable as the next person of putting my foot in my mouth (possibly more so!) but I do think somewhere along the line a lot of wrong ideas have got out there of how to deal with someone who has cancer, be they a family member, a friend, or a complete stranger. I just wish more people would stop and think occasionally “What if it were me in their shoes?”

So on that note, here’s some friendly advice, from me to you! :-) :

1. If you see someone who looks like they are going through cancer (scarf on head, pale face, etc.), do not stare at them for so long that they feel your gaze and meet it, and then look away as if the sun has scorched your eyes. At least have the good grace to smile.

2. If you hear someone has cancer, ask them how they are doing. Do not feel the need to give them false reassurances that they are going to kick cancer’s ass (unless they specifically ask for such reassurances). They have to go to a doctor every week who looks them in the eye with no such assurances, they have to be strong and smile constantly, please let them off the hook this one time from having to make someone else feel better (I know you mean well and this is the thing you have been brainwashed into thinking it’s important for us to hear, but truly, just treat us like we’re your same old friend, and let us say how we’re really doing.)

3. If you have a friend or loved one going through cancer, don’t ignore them. Ask them to go for a coffee or a walk. They may well be isolated and bored of being at home. Plus having to entertain visitors means they will feel they have to clean the house and make you something, which they probably are too tired to cope with.

4. If you want to buy them a present, by all means do. Cancer is very boring and you feel like complete rubbish one week a month, slightly less rubbish the second, then in two weeks you go back to feeling rubbish. Rinse, cycle, repeat, often for months on end. Books and dvd’s are greatly appreciated. Also loungewear, soft hats and scarves. I had to shop quite a few times for scarves and hats and things and found it rather depressing as my hair was by that stage falling out in large clumps. Later on I found there is this really great website in the States called that makes a wonderful selection of headscarves for cancer/alopecia patients - I got quite bored of my bald head as I didn’t wear a wig (so hot and itchy!) and enjoyed having numerous options to wear –a gift from a site like this would have been greatly appreciated, though I know it might make some people uncomfortable, so maybe a gift certificate would be nice.

5. Taxi Drivers/other service industry people who see all walks of life everyday: You are driving sick people to and from the hospital/cancer treatment center. You can see they are sick. Do not ask them what is up, and certainly, do not then regale them with tales of your great aunt who died of breast cancer eight years ago and then tell them to buy Lance Armstrong’s book (true story!). Do not then expect a tip!

6. In the vein of number five, when it comes to strangers or acquaintances who have cancer, when in doubt, don’t over share. It’s nice that you knew someone with cancer once but it really has nothing to do with us and frankly we’re not that interested. I often found that the minute someone sussed I had cancer they’d suddenly start regaling me with frankly boring and often depressing stories. Unless YOU yourself have dealt with it, in the words of Game of Thrones' Ygritte: You know nothing, Jon Snow.

7. Offer some fun. Think of something that might amuse them. I often had well-meaning visits from people who would gather at my house and gawp at me sympathetically. It was awkward. I didn’t particularly have much news to share, especially not news they were interested in talking about. The pressure to “turn on” and be cheerful was relentless when I could have used some distractions. Why do only kids with cancer get to go to Disney World? I would have quite liked a fun day out, instead of being largely handled with kid gloves.

8. Don’t tell them you are praying for them. Ok this is probably just grumpy old me, I actually did think it was sweet and touching, but I was always being told I had so many people I’d never even met praying for me. I’m grateful, truly, but I didn’t really need to know that numerous congregations I’d never met were supposedly praying for a complete stranger. How could I repay the favour? If you want to pray for someone, please do, but unless they have asked for it, please don’t tell them they are the focus of it, it makes them feel awkward and indebted and slightly hypocritical if they’re not remotely religious.

9. Don’t compare yourself to us. It’s natural, I get it, you want to relate. But that time you had that mole scare isn’t quite what we’re going through.

10. Do just be there. I know it’s scary and hard. But cancer is lonely, and hard going without friends and family. Yes they are going through a socially weird time, but please if you can, be there for them (and now I have the Friends theme tune in my head, greeeat!).

Ok well thanks for reading. If nothing else I hope someone somewhere reads this and realizes that the person they love who has cancer is maybe needing them more than they are letting on. We're good at putting on a brave face, because everywhere we go we are being told that's what you all expect to see from us. Sometimes it would be nice to let that mask slip and get a tiny bit more real with where we're at.


  1. So, it's hard to comment on this without rolling out stories of seeing people I love go through cancer and that's a no-no. But it's a great post - hopefully one people will read and find useful.

    1. Oh, I don't mean to negate anyone's experience, I do relate and am interested in other people's experience of it with their loved ones. It's more to do with during it, you get bombarded with people whose "neighbour" or "second cousin" had it, etc., and I just found it a bit annoying!

  2. This was really great and well-written. It must have been insanely hard to go through that without family and old friends nearby. I honestly can't even imagine. I agree with you about people saying "you're going to kick it's butt!" and "my prayer chain or whatever is praying for you." I guess it is nice for people to want to pray for the help and health of others, but...for's hard if it's just some random person I've never met and I'm praying for because it was written on a prayer request card. Not that that is a bad thing - I think it's good for a lot of people. But for myself, I'd honestly prefer to pray for a family I saw in the supermarket struggling to buy their groceries than a name on a card. I hope that doesn't make me seem bitchy. :( Plus, in the times in my life when people have said "I'm praying for you," all I could think was..."uh, thanks..." I felt like Harry Potter being interviewed by Rita Skeeter and having no idea what to say. But I guess at least people's hearts are in the right place. Anyway, this was an amazing post and sorry for my so-long response.

    1. Aw, thanks for reading! Yeah, I would get like knitted prayer shawls and things and just feel like, indebted but not sure how to feel? I guess accepting the kindness of strangers is hard when you're not used to it! And when people ask for prayers on Facebook I always feel weird, because I'm not exactly religious, but I also want to help, but saying "Sending positive thoughts" always sounds so lame. But I don't want to lie and say "I'm praying to Jesus for you right now!" either! I don't know, it's weird...if you're a Harry Potter fan (I'm kind of a mild one, in that I've read all the books,seen the films, but not been to Harry Potter land in Florida even though my Mom lives there (yet!) - anyway there was a really good documentary on last week by Tom Felton (Draco) about the Harry Potter superfans,I imagine it will be available in the States or online soon hopefully. :-)

    2. Thank you for telling me of this documentary. I must see it and can't wait 'till it's available here.

  3. You were exactly at the age I am right now, my goodness.
    I am so proud of you Steffany for the things you had to go through and beat this monster :)

    1. Aw thanks Anastasia you are very kind! Xx