Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

How do I talk to someone with cancer?


Real Girl by Donna Williams

Real Girl by Donna Williams

Seems the C word sends everyone mad. Friends suddenly lose their equilibrium, they can run about like mad chickens, look ready to throw you a pity-party, find a mission in healing you, become a resource machine, tell you one size fits all happy ever after stories of some archetypal ‘Mary Smith’ who had cancer, tell you how ignorant your oncologist or surgeon is and how they have found one who is much better, or how your cancer could really be a banana or sweat gland or anything other than what your doctor says it is, or they disappear altogether unable to face you. In short, your friends may suddenly turn into ‘idiots’.

Perhaps they should really say any of the following:

  • shit, that’s scaring me
  • shit, I feel out of control
  • shit, I feel helpless
  • shit, I feel petty and pissed off at myself worrying about my own life
  • shit, I love my friend and I’d hate to lose her
  • shit, I don’t know how to tell her that cancer scares me because I fear getting THAT one day
  • shit, I don’t know how to just be my usual self now that I look at her and see the C word
  • shit, I couldn’t possibly burden her with my feelings about all this
  • shit, could I really try to chat and be like ‘business as usual’? Wouldn’t she think I was utterly insensitive?

Perhaps you’d do well to go take Rescue Remedy, run yourself a bath, screw your mad chicken head back on and remember how your friendship usually is because that’s what actually sustains your friend and she may really need a sense of everyday life at present, of yours, of hers.

My quick do’s and dont’s.

  • Give the person time and space to digest news about their cancer in their own way on a variety of levels.
  • Don’t expect or need endless blow by blow updates. It’s their cancer, not yours.
  • Let the person know you’re there and that you’re open to hearing what kind of help/support they might want from you (if any).
  • Respect their feelings of autonomy, their need to empower themselves that this is THEIR journey they will do in their way.
  • Don’t undermine the person’s trust in their specialist medical team.
  • Don’t inundate the person with generic, alarmist nor minimalising forms of information.
  • Understand all cancers are different, there are also very different TYPES of breast cancers, then each will have its own stage, grade, treatment plan and wider genetic, immunological and environmental contexts, so if you don’t have all that information, hold off on the one size fits all advice/stories as these may no more apply to the person you’re telling than they’d immediately apply to you.
  • Don’t instantly assume the person is in pain, suffering, miserable, a victim nor that they hate their cancer. Every person has their own spiritual journey with their body, their immunity, their genetics and their cancer.
  • Don’t instantly promote yourself to being their savior, hero, priest, healer. They may miss the every day friend they then just lost.
  • Talk about your every day life, bring along show and tell (but don’t be an energy drain/venting machine). They’re not dead yet.
  • Their life will change, they may have quit work, be tired, be adapting their life to better manage their treatment and journey. Be open to hearing about this as their journey, their new daily life, and don’t be surprised if it is quite a spiritual adventure for them and not just a fear driven battle with darkness.
  • If they’re tired or ill or just need time and space to get through a procedure or ponder a treatment choice, don’t take that personally, you have your own life, just keep living it and check in later to see if they are up for more contact yet, or not.
  • Be human, be open, be yourself and don’t lose track of your own life. They liked you for who you were in your own right, in your own life, don’t put your life completely on hold by fixating on theirs.
  • Don’t fixate on their cancer either, nor behave as if they will be back once the cancer has gone. They are still the person they always were, that person didn’t suddenly evaporate because of diagnosis or treatment and the cancer is merely walking along side of them. If they are lucky, the cancer will leave them at some point, but if it doesn’t, don’t let cancer hold to ransom your friendship with them as a whole person.

Donna Williams, BA Hons, Dip Ed.
Author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter.
Autism consultant and public speaker.

I acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Owners of this country throughout Australia, and their connection to land and community.