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How to support a survivor

Cancer doesn't just affect the survivor, but also her family and friends.

Partners are expected to be there through the surgeries, chemo, and radiation treatments, whether they like it or not.

Children feel your fear and anxiety, no matter how you try to hide it. There's no way to hide the side effects like fatigue and hair loss, unless you send them away to live with relatives, but that just ain't realistic.

I found that friends and family fall into 2 categories: Those who don't know what to do but show up anyway, and those who are too scared to show up so they stay away.

For the survivors, we are literally doing all we can to live, so being concerned for others emotional well being is often just too much. Every survivor is different, but based on my experience and talking to others, here's what I've found:

  1. Don't just offer to help, be specific. So many people would say "just let me know what I can do". And I'm sure they meant it. The problem was, I had no idea what I needed. What was more helpful was when someone offered something specific, like picking up the girls from practice, making a meal calendar for people to bring meals to the house, or taking me to the doctor.

  2. Offer to be there, but don't get offended if she doesn't want you there. As social as I am, I don't like people seeing me at my worst. And trust me, I was definitely at my worst the days following chemo and my surgeries. I really appreciated the love, but I distinctly remember after my mastectomy thinking "please go away before I throw up" because the anesthesia made me sick and I didn't want to puke on my friends and co-workers whom I loved and respected. Or following chemo, when someone dropped by unexpectedly and I had to force myself to sit up in bed with my pajamas on when all I wanted to do was wallow in self-pity alone in the bed. Showing up unannounced is only good if you are with Publisher's Clearing House and have a big check with my name on it.

  3. Treat her normally, not like she's dying of cancer. Seriously, unless she is actually dying right that moment, don't treat her like her life is over. It isn't, and and even if the prognosis is bad, she doesn't need to be reminded by the look on your face or the tears in your eyes. Don't treat her with kid gloves or avoid talking to her about your problems because she has cancer. That doesn't mean she doesn't want to hear about what's going on in your life. Hell, I loved hearing about my friends' problems cause it took my mind off of mine. What I didn't like was when someone would give me a sad look and ask if I was sure I should be at work or avoid me like cancer was contagious.

  4. Accept her as she is, warts and all. Everyone handles treatment differently. Some of us are open and can easily talk about it. Others are not comfortable and would rather pretend nothing is going on. Either way, having cancer will change us, if not physically, definitely mentally. If we are lucky enough to be declared "cancer free", that doesn't mean everything is back to normal. It never will be. I became more depressed and anxious after treatment was over. I had to figure out how to live with this new body, this new brain, and this new attitude while everyone around me thought I was "better" and expected things to return how they had been before the diagnosis.

  5. Don't be upset if she prefers talking to other survivors instead of you. Sometimes it's easier to talk to a perfect stranger who has really been there than it is to talk to your spouse. For me, I hated to show my weaknesses to those who knew me; I was afraid they wouldn't understand or treat me differently. But fellow survivors understand what it's like to have a new body that you don't want touched, to have chemo brain hit at the worst time, to be going through menopause at 39.

To all you supporters out there, keep doing what you do and know that we love and need you!!!

By April Sampson

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