Throughout the last few years I had a few awkward conversations, people don’t know what to say, they don’t want to offend you or say the wrong thing. I didn’t really take notice of it during my treatment because I was too preoccupied with everything else. It’s only now that I realise how hard some people found it, while others found talking to me easy.
The day I was told it was Cancer was summer. I was eighteen, looking forward to holidays and seeing friends, never in the world expecting the brick wall I was running straight towards. The first person I told was my best friends mum, luckily Rebecca was out because I think she would have passed out, her mum was calm and as always knew exactly what to say. I felt relaxed after speaking to her, but then I had to tell my other friends. One friends reply was, ‘fuck off!’ Before he suddenly realised that it wasn’t a sick joke it was real, he was the first person who couldn’t handle it. I lost contact with him half way through my treatment and we haven’t spoken since. My other friends were shocked, but found a way to deal with it. They would try and lighten the mood every time it was brought up. If someone insulted me one of my friends would whisper, ‘You cant say that…she has cancer!’ with a wink. Now I look back and it does make me shiver a little when I think about how we dealt with it, it was a joke, it wasn’t serious and I was fine. I never once cried in front of my friends, I never got upset, I didn’t talk about it unless I had to and I think they soon realised I was just the normal Lily.
I do look back and wish I had shown how I was inside, falling apart. Because now my treatment is finished and I have the all clear I feel like people expect me to go back to the way I was. I know that when I was having treatment and operations I wasn’t dealing with it, that’s why I did so well. Now that it’s all over and I should be back to my old self I am starting to deal with what happened to me, what I had to face and what I had to face alone. My family were an incredible support, as was my best friends and the nurse at Addenbrookes who took my weekly phone calls of panicked questions with not even a flicker of annoyance. Now I’m struggling to deal with what happened my friends don’t understand, they don’t realise how I feel because I never showed them when I was sick.
So from my experiences I have learned how I would have liked to have been treated, and how I should have acted:
1. I hated the word cancer, even now when I say it I feel a little sick. Don’t purposefully avoid using the word, but try not to squeeze it into every sentence. It does depend on the person, some, it might not bother, but I hated that word, and I still do.
2. Don’t patronize the person. “But you look so good, I never would have guessed you had Cancer!” What would they reply to that, “Well…Thanks.” It’s uncomfortable because I personally wouldn’t want people to look for clues that I had cancer. You can tell them they look good, but don’t connect it to the cancer.
3. I had a certain treatment that meant I didn’t lose my hair, and for months I felt horrendously guilty that I kept my hair when so many others didn’t. If I got upset or cried I would then feel like I was selfish, because so many other people have horrible treatments to go through and mine wasn’t so bad. Do not say to someone, “Well at least you didn’t lose your hair.” Because for me that just made me feel guilty again, I felt like a selfish person without other people unintentionally reminding me.
4. No cancer is a ‘good cancer’. I was told this, then I told my friends and my family and I soon felt like what I had wasn’t that bad. No cancer is good, it might be in a better place than some but its still awful and terrifying. So please, never say the words, good cancer.
5. Don’t talk about your own problems. This is a difficult one, because some didn’t bother me at all, but one boy text me the week after my treatment moaning and groaning about some girl that didn’t like him. He told me over and over how much he loved her and ‘why is the world so cruel?’ I’m sorry? I think some people are so wrapped up in their world they don’t have a clue, or some just really don’t realise they’re doing anything that you find uncomfortable. A sixteen year old boy thought he had it bad because a girl didn’t like him, and he didn’t think to ask how I was after having radiotherapy. Thanks! Another rang me up after my second op and the first thing he said was, “What the fuck is wrong with your voice?” (the surgeon paralyzed my vocal chords after my op which turned my voice into a croaky whisper for six months, I choked on drink and got very out of breath, I also hardly talked because it was so much effort.) When I told him he then carried on to tell me how he didn’t get his results that he needed for uni and his life was over. Again, a little insensitive.
6. Avoid comparing one person with cancer to another. If you say how well someone with cancer is dealing with it, then the other person might think you’re telling them to deal with it better. Everyone deals with it differently. Some people will break down at the beginning and be inconsolable and then deal with the rest really well. Others fall apart in the middle during treatments and appointments while some it hits them at the end, when everything is finished and they no longer have a goal of having that op, having that scan. It hit me at the end, I am still struggling to come to terms with it. The doctors almost say, ‘Well done, you beat it, off to the big wide world with you!’ Then you’re standing on the doorstep with your life in your hands and thinking, well what now? But in the end, everyone will fall apart somewhere, let them do it, help them through it and tell them you are there for them.
7. Lastly, let them know you’ll be there whenever you need them. Don’t badger them each time to tell you exactly whats happening and how they are feeling. Maybe just say the once, ‘Look, I know you’re having a hard time, I won’t talk to you about it unless you want me to. I’m here for you, if you need to be sad or angry or just want to have a laugh I’m right here.’ Just remember, they are the same person they were before they were diagnosed, they’re just a little more fragile, a little more scared and need you more than they ever thought they would.
One last point, If the person you know suffering from cancer, or suffering from the emotional stress after cancer is having a bad time, you can always lift their mood. The lowest I ever got was after my second operation, my best friend came over and I fell apart. But instead of sitting for hours watching me cry she did something incredible. It was simple, yet she made me feel like a different person by the time she left. She brought a Disney movie over, stuck it on the television and then pulled out a cardboard letter for both of us. Mine was an ‘L’ for Lily and hers was a ‘R’ for Rebecca. We spent the rest of the afternoon decorating them with different bits of paper. Distractions work, pity is like a high, works for a while but you always come crashing down. Sure. after she went I was still low, but I was confident that I could face the world better than I thought I could a few hours ago. You need your friends, so don’t hide from the fact they have cancer, do something incredible and be there for them, accept the way they are and love them. I’ll never be able to repay Rebecca or my family for what they did, and if you can do that for your friend, you are an amazing person.