How to React to Cancer


One of the most surprising things for my husband and me during our fight with cancer were the reactions of others. To this day, some of my family members haven’t said anything to me about the cancer. Not, “hey how are you doing?” or “Sorry for your bad news, we’re rooting/praying for you.” Nothing. They heard about my diagnosis’ through other family members, but they haven’t said one word about it- as if they are afraid to bring it up or talking about cancer is taboo.

We’ve never let it bother us too much because we know by now that people are unreliable at acting the way you hope they will, and there is usually a good reason for someone’s behavior. But I have to admit, in the moment when you are going through hell and someone pretends nothing is wrong for whatever reason… it hurts. It’s a weird feeling of vulnerability and betrayal when someone who cares about you does nothing, says nothing, and acknowledges nothing when you are dealing with cancer, the death of a loved one, divorce, etc…

The first time I was diagnosed, I told my family and everyone I had a friendship with. I quickly found out that I had a lot of acquaintances and casual friends—people that weren’t really invested in me or our relationship. Some of those friendships fell away soon after, and the very personal things I shared about my health became their next tidbit of gossip. So when the second cancer barged into our lives, I was very particular with whom I told. I told only my family and a few friends that were proven tried and true.

“The way that people react to your cancer has more to do with them than you.”

I read this quote when I first got diagnosed with uterine cancer and it helped me tremendously. Friends, that I knew cared deeply for me, had little reaction when I told them. Family that were not even blood-related wept when they got the news. My preconceptions were shaken and I didn’t know what to expect from whom. I just wanted to hear that someone cared and understood what we were headed for. We needed to know that the people we loved were going to support us.

There was a point where we thought I was going to die. I had a pit in my stomach that turned out to be intuition, because I knew that my fertility would be taken from me before we got the diagnosis. I was deciding whether or not I had enough assets to put in a living will, and wrote another “after I’m dead” letter to my husband and tucked it away in our computer files. We knew that another surgery was inevitable, that debt was coming, and hoped I would make it out alive. This is what goes through my husband’s mind; my mind, when we call up our friends and family and ask for support in prayer.

So here we are, headed toward a fast and dangerous turn up ahead, and despite our faith we were still scared of the unknown….and then we see a friend or a family member who knows all this stuff about what we’re going through, and they say nothing. They avoid us. They look the other way. And then we remind each other that their reaction probably has nothing to do with us and the pain we’re in. We try to find excuses for their behavior and reasons why someone could come across so indifferent and cold. It’s a good exercise for the imagination, let me tell ya. I know in my heart that they care about me, but their absence of support leaves me to wonder, why? People can’t read minds, or see what’s in your heart. You have to express that to them.

So in light of all the people who let me down and acted indifferent, or casual about my cancer diagnosis’–I gave them the benefit of the doubt, and just assumed they couldn’t deal with cancer, or had no knowledge or experience with it, just like my husband and I didn’t before we knew. I was hoping that by sharing my story it would encourage you to do something–even if you are afraid or unsure of how to behave in the face of horrible news. Here are some tips I can give from my perspective and things I learned from all of this.

Ideas of things to say:
“I heard about {insert situation} and I just wanted you know I’m thinking of/praying for you.”
“I know you are having a rough time lately and if there’s anything I can do for you just call me. Do you have my number?”
“I’m sorry you are going through this/this happened.”
“You are strong and you are going to get through this. You have our support.”
“I’m not really sure what to say to comfort you, if there’s anything that could, but I want you to know that I love you and I’m hurting with you.”

Ideas of things to do:
Smile warmly at them and start a conversation. Ask, “How are you?” and mean it.

Listen more than you talk. 

Invite them over for a homemade dinner and company and keep your appointment.

Send flowers or a card.

Plan to meet for coffee or lunch.

Do research and find helpful suggestions for their specific needs/circumstance and offer to do it with them. Example, “I found out this week that our city has free meetings at the community center for bereavement, would you want to go sometime with me?” or “I learned that exercise really helps fight depression. Do you want to come to a workout class with me or walk in the park this week?”

Most importantly, be genuine and be yourself! If you aren’t eloquent with words, or if you are afraid to say something stupid… then start with that! 🙂  People need to know that you care about them, not that you are perfectly acquainted with everything that they are going through.

God bless,


“>Check out more ideas in my other post —>

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