What cancer survivors wish people knew from What Cancer Survivors Wish People Knew [Gallery]
What Cancer Survivors Wish People Knew [Gallery]
Robert Lahser/Charlotte Observer/MCT
What cancer survivors wish people knew
According to the American Cancer Society, both men and women have a 1 in 3 chance of developing some type of cancer in their lifetime. That likely means you or someone you know has or will have cancer. Thankfully, in the U.S., the cancer death rate has declined over the past two decades, meaning more and more people live through a cancer diagnosis and make it to remission. These people have acquired hard-won wisdom and advice for newly diagnosed people as well as their friends and family.
Kinds of cancer can affect anyone
Cancer is an equal-opportunity attacker, meaning that even people with no family history of the disease and healthy lifestyles can be affected. Non-smokers can get lung cancer, men can get breast cancer and darker-skinned people can get skin cancer. If you’ve been diagnosed, remember you didn’t do anything to “get” cancer, and if you’re speaking to someone with cancer, don’t blame aspects of their lifestyle or ask why they got cancer -- they generally will never know what made the difference.
Everyone’s case is different
Because cancer diagnoses are so prevalent, many people’s reaction upon learning someone has cancer is to immediately compare it to another individual’s case. The problem is that everyone’s cancer is different, so the advice from a magazine that worked for your uncle or the specialized treatment that worked for your friend might not work for someone else. So unless a person has specifically asked for your advice, don’t give your two cents.
Don’t compare cancers
In a similar vein, there are no “better” or “worse” kinds of cancers to get -- cancer is still cancer. And someone with Stage 0 cancer still needs support as much as someone with Stage 4. Stage or type doesn’t correspond with how “easy” or difficult of a time someone will have with treatment, side effects or recovery.
Avoid horror stories
Similar to unsolicited advice, it doesn’t do a person diagnosed with cancer any good to hear horror stories about other experiences. When you’re going through treatment, you are already overwhelmed with fears and anxieties, and hearing accounts of how someone’s doctor failed them or how they suffered in treatment only for the cancer to come back doesn’t help. Similarly, people who’ve been diagnosed can turn to the Internet for research and support but have to make sure they don’t spend too much time reading about terrible what-ifs.
Words mean different things to people
Some people feel strongly about the vocabulary that has arisen to describe the cancer experience. According to Reader’s Digest, some people who have or had cancer dislike the negative connotations of “patient” or “victim” and prefer being called a person “living with cancer” or a “survivor.” On the other hand, some people find terms like “survivor,” “battle with cancer” or “beating cancer” insulting, because it implies people who died from cancer “lost” because they didn’t “fight” hard enough. Make sure and check with people in regards to how they’d like to be addressed.
Don’t pull away if you don’t know what to say
Many people in remission have identified a phenomenon that happened when they first got diagnosed. They would tell friends and family members, and their response would be to disappear. It’s hard to know what to say or how to act when someone is dealing with cancer, but abandoning them in a tough time out of fear or awkwardness is worse than saying the wrong thing.
Cancer isn’t a death sentence
Hearing the word “cancer” from a doctor or a loved one can immediately trigger dread or panic. But after that initial reaction, take a deep breath and remember that cancer is more curable than ever, and the millions of people living beyond a cancer diagnosis are a testament to that. According to the American Cancer Society, men have a 78 percent chance of surviving across all types, while women have an 81 percent chance. Every case is different, but attitude and perspective are important when going through treatment or supporting someone who is.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT
There’s more than one kind of treatment
Many people are familiar with chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but every person diagnosed with cancer won’t undergo these. And even if they do, there’s more than one kind of chemotherapy drug, and each one can cause a myriad of different side effects. Some people experience nausea and lose weight, while others gain weight.
A person is more than a diagnosis
“Cancer is life-changing but one thing I wish I could have told my friends and family is how desperately I wanted to keep living a normal life,” breast cancer survivor Samantha Price wrote. If you’re friends with someone going through treatment, it might seem petty to complain about work, but the truth is, they appreciate being treated like they were before their diagnosis and enjoy talking about life outside of cancer instead of always focusing on their illness.
Offer to do specific things for people
If someone you care about is undergoing treatment for cancer, small, simple gestures can go a long way. Fatigue is a common side effect, so bring them a meal, wash their car, babysit, do laundry or drive them to treatment. Taking care of the little things can be a huge stress relief. And make sure to offer to do specific tasks -- people are often uncomfortable asking for help, so waiting on them to reach out if they need something puts a burden on them.
Cancer is more than physically stressful
Although cancer treatment is taxing on the body, the toll cancer takes isn’t just physical. People with cancer also stress about managing their finances, scheduling appointments, navigating medical insurance, taking time off work, and taking care of themselves and their families. The organization Cancer 101 advises that a source of stress will be managing all the friends, family and loved ones who will want to check in. While they mean well, it’s exhausting to update everyone individually about your health, so consider sending updates to everyone via email or group message.
The support system needs support
Whether they’re a partner or spouse, a child, a parent or a friend, the primary caregivers around a person with cancer often try to be strong for that person without having an outlet themselves. It’s important for caregivers to relax and have “normal” time with friends and family as well.
Nick Agro/Orange County Register/TNS
Document the journey
While in the midst of treatment, some might not want to document their experience, but many survivors appreciate having pictures of them without hair or journals full of pages of frustration so that they can look back and see how far they’ve come. Writing is also a healthy way to process emotions.
Prepare for invasive questions
Whether you’re a person who has cancer or a caregiver, brace yourself for people to ask nosy or insensitive questions. Cancer is a very personal experience, and sometimes sharing that information prompts people to ask questions that would normally be considered rude. People might ask about your symptoms and side effects or even your sex life, how much your treatment costs, when you’ll lose your hair or what you did to “get” cancer. Just remember you’re not obligated to answer and should set boundaries around what you’re comfortable sharing.
Cancer never really leaves you
According to cancer survivors, “cancer-free” is a bit of a misnomer because you’re never really “free” from cancer. Despite being in remission, the threat of cancer returning is a lingering fear, and patients will have check-ups and appointments for the rest of their lives to monitor for that. On top of that, the process of emotionally or mentally recovering from cancer can last long after someone is “cancer-free.” Many side effects from the process or the treatment can linger as well. It’s been found that cancer survivors can even suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/MCT
Survivor’s guilt is real
According to Cancer.net, cancer survivors can experience anxiety and shame over making it through treatment when others have not. They can also feel guilt over complaining or talking about their experience when others have it worse, or for the ways in which people had to sacrifice to help care for them. Social workers and support groups are two avenues to help people process these emotions.
Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times/MCT
Chemo brain is real too
Though doctors haven’t quite pinpointed the cause of this phenomenon, many people who go through chemo experience concentration problems and memory loss. This has been nicknamed “chemo brain” or “chemo fog.” Survivors can continue to experience this even after ending treatment. People around them might think it’s funny, cute or annoying, but for survivors, it’s scary, embarrassing and incredibly frustrating. Patience is key for everyone.
Call people out
Cancer takes a mental toll that friends and family might not be equipped to handle or that might require professional intervention. If you are worried that someone might be suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD or other mental or social problems that they’ve avoiding, it’s important to talk to them or their doctor about your concerns.
People cope in different ways
Once in remission, people will react to having had cancer in different ways. Some will take years to comprehend what it means to move on from the experience. Some will write about it, give talks or attend support groups. Others will become crusaders, attending or getting involved in events and fundraisers. But some people will do the opposite. They might prefer returning to their pre-diagnosis life and pretending it never happened. Any of these reactions are OK -- there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to respond and heal.
It changes who you are
Even if you try to return to life as it was before your cancer diagnosis, the experience of having cancer will forever have an effect on you. You will be more conscious of your health and have regular checkups and tests for years to come. You might be inspired to change your lifestyle or career, grow deeper in your faith, try a new activity or learn a new skill. Cancer can also impact your relationships, bringing you closer to loved ones and surprising you with who steps up when the going gets tough. According to Scott Hanel, a non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor of 25 years, though the journey was hard, you will eventually “appreciate the lessons cancer has taught you and all the ways it has changed you.”