My own diagnosis of cancer back in 2007 unfortunately wasn’t my first close experience of this terrible disease. More than twenty years ago, my mother had breast cancer, and has managed to survive, but my father died of bowel cancer several years ago. Statistics currently show that one in three of us are affected by cancer now, with that figure rising to one in two by 2020! Put that into perspective for a minute, half your friends and family will be affected by cancer, a quite shocking thought. Thankfully, cancer is spoken about much more openly now, certainly more than it was in my mum’s day. I remember very clearly that she did not want to tell people she had the ‘big c.’ But let’s be honest, it is still a very awkward subject to tackle. I know that because I still find it difficult, despite writing and speaking publicly about it on an almost daily basis.
Despite all our new ways of communicating, we still find it difficult to know what to do or say to people affected by cancer. My experience has shown me that this means some friends start to ‘disappear,’ in many cases they just don’t know what to do for the best, so do nothing at all. Ironically, when we are newly diagnosed is the time we need people most. I suppose I now have a unique perspective on this issue, as I am a person affected by cancer but am also supporting many friends too. I always feel that nothing much will shock me, but there is always something! I remember on one occasion I was at dinner with a great lady friend of mine and half way through our meal, she said, “Chris, I need your help, I have breast cancer.” I wasn’t prepared for that, and we were in a quiet restaurant, but dealt with it. On another occasion, one of my best pals rang me to talk about football, and in the middle of the conversation he mentioned his wife had just been diagnosed.
Those examples illustrate the difficulty of giving and receiving information about cancer. Cancer is a truly isolating experience, but now we can find many sources of help. One of the biggest challenges of supporting people affected by cancer is that we all need different things at different times. So no ‘one size fits all’ approach is appropriate now. We have learned so much from previous years, what works and what doesn’t. There are now many charities offering a variety of services, which we can use when we require them, and social media has absolutely transformed the healthcare sector. In recent years good cancer support was considered as giving the patient a handful of booklets on their diagnosis, which probably had the effect of frightening most people, more than they were already. Now help can be given at the appropriate time for each patient, and if they are internet savvy, will be able to link to appropriate content from the internet.
Macmillan Cancer Support have introduced a new site called The Source, where people can share tips about helping people affected by cancer, and a great link on their website to show some fabulous examples of people reaching out to help others. I was asked for my biggest tip and I came up with “how can I help?” Most of us find it hard to ask for help, so I always found it great when people asked me what they could do. I use it frequently with others and I find it is a great way to start a conversation in what could be quite difficult circumstances. Just reflecting on my personal journey, once my treatment started I lost most of my independence, and relied on family and friends to take me to and from the hospital and do practical tasks that I was no longer able to do. Even many years on, I am unable to live the life I did before my illness and require help with many more things.
The feeling of isolation can be one of the biggest issues for a person affected by cancer, so to have people around who are able to help in various ways is a really positive thing, but I know that there were times, and still are, when I really do want to be on my own. So it is a difficult line to draw between being attentive and suffocating with attention, but experience will quickly show you what is appropriate for that person. There are many stages during a cancer journey and the help required at each one may vary drastically. Although the statistics show that more of us will be affected by cancer, as treatments improve, more of us are living with it. Survivorship is becoming a new challenge for us, and many people will need help trying to readjust to their ‘new’ life after cancer. There are many of us that can no longer work at the levels we were before, which can put incredible strain on all parts of our lives, least of all financially. Naturally, unless you have experienced something as traumatic as cancer it is hard to understand the impact it is having on someone, but don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Saying or doing nothing is much worse.
I would like to end this piece with the latest video from Macmillan, which very powerfully shows what it can feel like at times. I’m really pleased to see this ‘reach out’ campaign as I feel that it will go a long way to help break down some of those awkward communication barriers that we might feel. These are my thoughts and experiences, please feel free to share yours below, thanks!