According to the Canadian Cancer Society (2022), 2 in 5 Canadians are expected to develop cancer during their lifetime. Imagine for a moment, what 641 Canadians hear, who are diagnosed with cancer every single day. As the once imagined future becomes entangled into a web of grief, emotion, and loss.
With tomorrow being World Cancer Day, it is necessary to reflect upon the cancer experience so that supporting individuals living with cancer can be achieved in a more empathetic way.
As an oncology nurse, I witness cancer and its effects daily. What I can tell you is that cancer is not selective. I have cared for cancer patients of all ages, who have absolutely no family history, who have taken meticulous care of themselves, who have spent their entire lives “doing all the right things.” My patients sometimes will say, “I never saw this coming.” The truth is nobody sees cancer coming. Cancer is unpredictable and sometimes, it just happens.
No explanation exists as to why it happens. It is important when supporting individuals with cancer, to ensure they realize that cancer can happen to anyone and at any time. A shift from thinking about what could have been done differently to what can be done now can be transformative. Chemotherapy traditions are something that some of my patients do to help them cope with their current situation. The traditions incorporate something that they look forward to when they come in for treatments or appointments. Some will eat at a restaurant after each appointment with loved ones or will put on display a trinket during treatment to symbolize strength and resilience. Some phone a close friend or loved one, many create handmade knit or crochet items to give to staff and patients, while others share their lived experience with new individuals being diagnosed. These traditions have shifted the clinic from what individuals who have never been there believe should be a sad and depressing place, to a place with so much meaning, love, and humanity. Developing these traditions encourages healthy coping mechanisms that become a vital instrument to utilize along the cancer journey.
Every response to a cancer diagnosis is extremely diverse. While some may express tears, fears and worries, others may place their negative emotions in a container, consistently maintaining an optimistic attitude. One thing that I have learned is that there is no right way to react to a cancer diagnosis. Each individual reaction is okay. When supporting someone with a cancer diagnosis, it is important to realize that there is no one specific way they should look. The best way to approach the person you are supporting is with an open mind and heart. Sometimes the person you are supporting just needs space, or other times they may want you near for reassurance or a shoulder to cry on.
Whatever they require in that moment, know that it is their own process of coping with their new reality. As humans, sometimes we have the desire to try to “fix” people and things. Perhaps because we have been raised to believe that only being happy or positive is acceptable. However, trying to inspire someone to be positive, who needs to go through their own emotional process at their own pace, is not okay. What is okay is allowing for vulnerability while validating a wide spectrum of emotions that may arise. It is okay to ask the person you are supporting what they need in that moment from you. It is okay to admit that you do not know what to say. An open dialogue can lead the conversation in ways you never thought it could go. Give the person you are supporting permission to recognize that what they are experiencing is challenging. Give them permission to be wherever they are and be there with them.
Supporting someone with cancer can be energetically depleting at times. Being present to the emotion, loss and grief can weigh heavily. To be there for others, self-love becomes a priority. Checking in with yourself periodically to see how everything is affecting you is important. It is easy to get caught up in caring solely for others while forgetting about your own needs. Sometimes, all we need are simple displays of affection towards ourselves. Perhaps indulge in your favourite tea, a warm shower, creating something you love or even taking the long drive home from work. I will admit that recently I have given myself the gift of driving the long way home from work. I will crank the music while tears stroll down my cheeks. Sometimes screaming or laughing while reflecting upon the things I witness at work. This helps me release pent up energy and I feel relieved shortly after. It is always difficult to give myself permission to express myself entirely, but once I do, I feel like I am allowing my authentic self to simply be. Over time, the emotion and energy of others that we take on tend to build up. Your body knows what it needs, it is just a matter of giving yourself the time to slow down, listen and follow through. Being human is not easy sometimes, but when we tune in to our own needs, we can gift ourselves the feeling of being seen, valued and understood.
Asking questions of the person you are supporting is a critical piece of the puzzle. Being specific is necessary, because at times that individual may not have the energy to ask, think or even to get out of bed. Try offering your services to grab those groceries or ask if they would like to go out for a walk out in nature. It is always better to ask rather than assume. Please remember that the immunity of the person you are supporting can be at an all-time low.
Thankfully, technology can be used in a myriad of ways. Perhaps suggest a zoom call or a phone call if the individual you are supporting is nervous to have you over in the house. We cannot know what individuals with cancer are thinking or feeling, so it is important to have these open dialogues so that they can feel heard and understood. I recall a patient from a few years ago, who mentioned that as soon as her best friend found out that she had cancer, she never heard from her friend again. This was absolutely devastating to the patient. Perhaps if the friend of the patient were open, honest, and said that she did not know how to cope with her friend’s diagnosis, things could have turned out differently. Honesty and authenticity are the best way forward. Be honest that you have no idea what to say, or that you have no idea how to cope, or that you want to figure out how the relationship is going to look moving forward. It is okay to feel however you are feeling. You do not need to have all the answers. In fact, no one expects you to. What we all desire is connection and to be accepted as we are, whatever condition that may be.
Living with cancer is not for the faint of heart. After being diagnosed, the individuals that step into the cancer clinic are the most inspiring human beings that I have been lucky enough to witness. Despite the challenges, courage and resilience are on display in the hearts of each individual cancer patient. Supporting someone with cancer can be done with grace if we remember to reassure, ask, and remain as open and honest as possible. Individuals living with cancer have so much to teach us. They have tapped into a strength and adaptability that many of us could never comprehend. Their existence is the true image of what emotion looks like and about what being human looks like.
Canadian Cancer Society. (2022). Canadian statistics at a glance. Retrieved from: