Let me start by apologising to any lovely people who may recognise themselves here. To those who took the time to wish me well, to write a letter or simply keep me in their thoughts while I was ill, thank you – and I am sorry. But GH has asked me to be brutally frank and, the truth is, it’s only after you’ve become the 1 in 8 diagnosed with breast cancer that you know how it feels – and how you really need others to react.
It’s not that folk don’t feel sympathetic or can’t be bothered to help, it’s just that sickness – and especially breast cancer – scares them. Either that or it becomes all about their feelings and they forget how vulnerable the person at the centre of the drama is.
So, with the wisdom of hindsight, here are 10 things NOT to do or say to someone who has been told she has breast cancer and, more importantly, how you can help her through it.
1. Do not burst into tears
Every woman told she has breast cancer believes it will kill her. Happily, in most cases, she’ll be wrong. Survival rates are now better than ever, but that first diagnosis still feels like a death sentence. And what you don’t need is people backing up your suspicions. There’s a fine line between sounding unsympathetic and keeping matters in proportion. When friends and family wept, I immediately thought, ‘They think I’m going to die.’ Better to say, as one friend did, ‘I wish you didn’t have to go through all that treatment.’
2. Do not avoid talking about the subject
Friends have a difficult job. Terrified of saying the wrong thing about your situation, they sometimes ignore the subject altogether. But for more than a year, I never went a single day without the words breast and cancer entering my brain. Admittedly I was completely self-absorbed (thoughts of mortality tend to do that), but when friends didn’t acknowledge what I was going through, it felt as if I had already left the planet. Cancer is not a bogey word to a cancer patient – so keep your concern light but heartfelt.
3. Do not invade
In the middle of my treatment, I went with my family to the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. I was standing next to a medieval cesspit when a woman suddenly approached and put her arms around me. ‘You’re having treatment for breast cancer,’ she said, noticing my bald head. She put her hand on her heart, ‘Me too.’ Then she kissed me, wiped her tears and left. I was mortified. I found that I avoided women in my situation because I didn’t want to be part of The Club. The woman’s behaviour said more about her state of mind than mine, and I felt invaded.
4. Do not send YOUR thoughts by post
My family and friends never write to me, so when letters and cards of concern suddenly started arriving, I panicked. I just about managed to read each message before stuffing it into the rubbish bin. Looking back, I was spooked by their perceived gravity of my situation. On good days I was sensible enough to know the treatment would save me, but solemn messages made sense disappear. If you want your loved one to know you are thinking of them, pick up the telephone or visit. If you’re not close enough to do that, your concern won’t be missed.
5. Do not offer prayers
If you believe in asking for your God’s help, then do it. But don’t feel you need to tell the person on the receiving end. It. Will. Freak. Them. Out. There’s only one connection a sick person makes with religion, and that’s where they are going to end up if things don’t pan out well. Prayers were, to me anyway, too daunting by far.
Deputy Editor, Michelle Hather (left) with GH Editor-in-Chief, Lindsay Nicholson (right) in the Good Housekeeping Institute.
6. Do not say ‘Let me know what I can do’
You don’t need the added pressure of thinking up ways to let your friends help you. I never once took up this general offer, but I would have wept with gratitude if a friend had arrived on the doorstep, rubber gloves in hand, and insisted on cleaning the oven. I’ll always be grateful to one friend who, on chemo days, became my personal chauffeur – he dropped me outside the doors of the hospital and collected me afterwards. I didn’t see him for three weeks between treatments but every third Friday he was there, saving me a £20 hospital car park bill.
7. Do not stop sending out invites
Cancer is isolating. When you’re away from work, with too much time on your hands, there’s the tendency to think everybody else is having a fantastic time. Facebook is a terrible reminder that nothing has changed for your friends and colleagues. There they are at work each day, posting silly messages, planning their social lives and generally having a lovely time. There were days when I was even jealous of their daily commute. Never assume that a friend in the middle of chemotherapy will be too fed up/exhausted/ill to go to a party. Better to be invited to everything and go when you feel well enough than to sit at home feeling left out.
8. Do not try to kid us how well we look
There’s a photograph of me, taken at the height of chemo. I am bloated with steroids, my skin is pale and dull, bitterness burns in my eyes and my head is completely bald. I like to think I was more attractive before my year of treatment, yet people told me how well I looked when I was going through it. They may as well have said, ‘I never liked that rosy-cheeked, shiny-haired look on you.’ We may have lost our locks, but we still have our sight – and our marbles. If we can’t trust you to tell it as it is, then we will never trust you when it’s all over. It’s probably best not to say anything, unless you are asked. Then, be gentle.
9. Do not wait for us to make plans
My year of treatment went very slowly. I lost entire afternoons sleeping in the garden or reading in bed. I couldn’t predict how I would be feeling, so I didn’t plan ahead. I needed organising. My best friends booked theatre and gallery tickets and gave me first dibs on attending – if I didn’t feel up to it, I didn’t have to go. It was good to know the option was there and I had not been forgotten.
10. Do not expect gratitude for raising cancer funds
Unforgivably, I found that I resented anyone raising money in my name. Now I know that it was done out of love, but at the time it made me cross – I wasn’t dead yet, after all. It was also a reminder that I wasn’t well enough to join them. It’s lovely of you to want to help, but be prepared for ingratitude.
Two years on, and it all seems like a bad dream.
I was self-centred and angry throughout my treatment, which is certainly down to my personality rather than the cancer. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I also realise how scared and vulnerable I was, and how I required some very careful handling. So thank you to my friends and family, and to all those who showed they cared – I wouldn’t have survived without you.