Last week I underwent a surgery I had been hoping to avoid. It was a dark cloud hanging over my head for 6 months. It started with a test, a biopsy, an ineffective attempt to rev up my immune system and a surgery.
The past 6 months have been an emotional rollercoaster as I faced the possibility of cancer and potentially damaging my child-bearing abilities. I had an amazing amount of support, not only from my loved ones and friends, but also from my friends in the blogosphere.
Let me say first that there is no wrong way to support a friend. But a health crisis can send a person into an emotional tailspin of anger, fear and loneliness. Here are a few things I learned along the way.
Don’t say: Lots of people go through it.
When I heard this (which was often since lots of women do have this surgery), it made my feelings seem insignificant. While it is soothing to some degree to know that you’re not going into completely uncharted medical territory, it is the first time for you and it shouldn’t be trivialized.
Do say: Here’s the contact information for someone who has gone through it.
I can’t count how many times people told me they knew someone who had the same surgery and how she was fine. But that didn’t lessen my fears. Great. Someone, somewhere has come out OK. Doesn’t help.
A few days before my surgery, a woman called me and said that she’d had the same surgery, although it had been 20-someodd years since. She told me exactly what she went through, from beginning to the end. That was the first time I felt comfortable.
So much of what we fear as humans is simply the unknown. The more firsthand information I acquired, the more at ease I felt. After my surgery, a few more women stepped forward and said they’d had it also. I wished that they had done so earlier.
Don’t say: There are people who’ve gone through worse.
I heard this a few times, and when I did, it made feel like total crap. Not only was I (still) facing surgery, but here I am feeling sorry for myself while children in Africa are dying of hunger and disease. Thanks for the helping of guilt – it goes great with my anxiety and fear.
Do say: Let me share my experience going through something worse.
Unless you’re the person who has gone through something worse, I wouldn’t touch this one. If you can’t offer sympathy, don’t offer guilt in its place. If you have faced a bigger challenge, then please share your experience.
An older gentleman friend of mine faced (and beat) cancer three times. Another girlfriend beat a brain tumor. Two of my aunts have in recent years survived breast and brain cancer. Having watched these people walk through their ordeals with grace and talked to them about their fears, where they found strength and courage, and how they coped, were invaluable lessons.
Don’t say: Keep your chin up.
The thing about clichés is that we don’t hear their meanings anymore. Our mind sort of glosses over them because we’ve heard them so much. Besides, who wants to keep their metaphorical chin up when they feel a punch coming?
Do say: Keep your shoulders back.
This is a challenge you’re facing, and you should be in full-on attack mode. It was hard to feel self-pity, sadness, fear, or weakness when I remembered to physically round my shoulders back and down. It made me feel strong, powerful, like I was ready for a fight. It’s sort of like the moment a runner laces her shoes up – her body is ready for the run. By keeping my shoulders back, I was ready to face my challenges head-on.
Don’t say: Don’t worry.
I know this is what people say when they’re searching for the right thing to say and it just isn’t coming. People who love us desperately want to see us feeling better, faster. And it seems like anytime someone said this to me, they were willing it with all their might to take the worry away from me. But someone in a crisis is going to worry. I felt like people were trying to shut me up sometimes, like closing their eyes to an ugly house in the neighborhood.
Do say: Tell me what you’re worried about.
I realize that my loved ones don’t want to think about the worst-case scenarios anymore than I do, but I needed to talk about what I was worried about. Would it be cancer? What if I can’t have children? What if something goes wrong in the surgery?
One of my tricks for beating fear is naming the monster. I ask myself what the worst-case scenario outcome is. That usually takes the fangs off a fear. I needed to be able to do that with someone close to me, to get it off my chest. My moods were so effected by my fears, that I would burst into tears at the breakfast table. “Don’t worry” ain’t gonna fix that. Talking it through will.
Don’t say: Everything will be fine.
This is a lot like “don’t worry” in that I think people say it when they have nothing else to say. I usually just sort of shook my head in agreement or mumbled a thank-you. It just doesn’t really say anything.
Do say: I’m praying for you, or I’m holding you in my thoughts.
While “you’re in my prayers/thoughts” sounds kind of clichéd, this is probably one of the things that warmed my heart the most and actually made me feel better when people said it. It told me that they cared, were thinking about me, and were offering to do the one thing they could actually do – pray for my well-being or send “good vibes” my way.
Even when I was an atheist, I welcomed people’s prayers in a crisis. I took a class in college about the mind-body connection and read about studies in which cancer patients who had an assigned prayer group praying for them survived at higher rates than control groups that did not have a prayer group. I believe in the power of lots of people sending positive thoughts and wishes for you into the universe.
My rollercoaster ended on Monday when my doctor declared me cancer-free. If I can learn to remove the stress in my life, I’ll (hopefully) never have to face it again. But that’s another post…
Photo courtesy My Lyn via Flickr.