The Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Someone Who’s (Scary) Sick

In August 2014, I heard the word “cancer,” and it was directed at me. Actual, real me. If you’ve ever wondered what goes through a person’s mind when they hear that word, I’ll tell you. Or at least I’ll tell you what went through mine:

Oh no. I have to tell people, and they’re going to panic.

I was scared for myself, yes, but I was more scared for everyone else.

Dealing with worrying friends and family is much harder than dealing with the sickness itself. Wondering how people are going to look at you and talk to you and treat you is a very real thing.

With one word, I switched from “helper” to “needs help,” and I had to learn how to receive it.

I also learned a lot about what actually helps and what doesn’t. A few weeks after my diagnosis and surgeries, I started jotting down things people did that I loved and things they didn’t do that I wish they’d done.

I hope this helps those of you who, like me prior to cancer, feel helpless in knowing how to help others who are scary sick. Not just “sick,” but sick sick—in the way Sprite and Advil can’t cure.

THE DON’Ts

Don’t give yourself the excuse, “Lots of other people are texting them, so I don’t need to.”

I read every single text and letter I received, and each one touched me in a different way. Most of the tears I shed during my thyroid cancer journey were due to the outpouring of love I received from others.

Don’t be offended if it takes them days to reply or if the reply seems lame.

Though I read everything, I often didn’t have the time, energy, emotion, or words to reply. It can be overwhelming to feel like you have a list of people to update, thank, and fill-in constantly. So be patient and gracious if you don’t get a response that’s as timely or thorough as you’d hoped.

Don’t feel awkward.

Here’s the deal: everything you say will be right, and everything you say will be wrong.

After his wife’s death, C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, “I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll say something about it or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.”

When you have a heavy word like “cancer” written across your forehead, you know people see it whenever they look at you. You hate if they bring it up (because gosh, can’t they just talk about anything else?). And you hate if they don’t (because seriously, they’re going to pretend this isn’t happening right now?).

The best advice I can give is to strike a balance between concern and normalcy, and just not feel awkward about anything. Speak truth and speak in love.

Don’t be afraid to go deep and ask specific questions.

The general, “How are you feeling?” is good, but it’s difficult to answer. It’s tough to gauge if the asker is simply being kind or truly wants to know how good or horrible you’re feeling.

The best questions I received were the ones like, “What’s been the hardest part?” “What are you most scared of?” “What’s been easier than you expected?” “How has it been for your family?”

When you’re scary sick, it’s easy to feel lonely—not because no one cares but because no one understands exactly how you feel. And it means so much when people strive to know the deep-down-real-stuff.

It’s like Celine says in the movie Before Sunrise, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”

THE DOs

Do send a gift.

Sounds super easy, and it is.

I never cared very much about gifts until I was diagnosed and started receiving everything from flowers to candy to socks, CDs, and jewelry. It may sound superficial, but there’s something very real about gift-giving. Being showered with physical representations of people’s love makes the hard parts of sickness easier.

Do check in even after the hardest part has passed.

Every part of being scary sick is difficult—from waiting to get diagnosed, to having surgery or treatment, to healing up afterwards and processing what just happened.

Sometimes the processing part can be more emotionally draining than the physical toll. Make sure you continue to remember someone even after they’re out of the woods.

Getting well can be just as big of a culture shock as getting sick.

Do understand that this illness is their life now.

Yes, they care about your dog’s day camp and your son’s scraped knee, and they do want to hear stories that will distract them from worry. They really do.

But you need to know that hardly anything will be as significant as the fact that their body is rebelling against them.

Maslow had a point with the whole hierarchy of needs thing—physical well-being is the baseline for all humans, the most vital thing. And when that need feels jeopardized, nothing else seems to matter much.

Your health becomes this sort of all-consuming presence—a “cancer haze” is what I called it. As a loved one, just know that the haze exists.

Do ask how their spiritual life has changed or how they see the world differently.

I remember going about my days just yearning for someone to ask how this experience was impacting my faith. I felt like I was just about to burst with thoughts.

Scary sickness makes you see the world and your faith in a new light—so make sure you ask about it.

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12 Comments

  1. Trisha Fullmer

    Thank you for writing this up!
    As a mom of a cancer kiddo- it’s almost the same do’s and don’ts.
    Mom has to answer for the kid.
    I really hated how good friends stopped texting cause they didn’t know what to say.
    I hated how quiet people got.
    But it boosted my confidence and now I can’t shut up 🙂

    Reply
    • Rebecca Moore

      Trisha,
      I’m so sorry to hear that your kiddo is sick. I’m praying for his or her swift recovery.
      And how wonderful that you now know how to encourage others!

      Reply
  2. Barbara

    When I was scary sick, my church and homeschool community rallied around us. Brought us dinner and groceries, mowed our lawn and, most importantly, drive my children to where they needed to be. One family took my children home with them whenever I was in the hospital. It helped me immensely to know my 12 and 15 year olds were not home alone and scared.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Moore

      Barbara,
      It really is amazing to feel so loved and supported by others during difficult times–such a gift from God. I’m so glad you experienced that!

      Reply
  3. Kathleen

    Great list. I was very sick last winter, in the hospital for almost a month. I agree with all of it and especially that it’s important to reach out and not have any expectations about receiving a response. I loved everyone’s messages but often was so tired and feeling so horribly I wasn’t able to respond for a while. My cousin just lost his young son to cancer and I tried to explicitly say this when I reached out to them: “No need to respond to this – I just want you to know how much we love you.” And I’m always touched these days when, 5 months later, friends ask how I’m feeling, how my recovery is going, etc. On the outside I look pretty good but my chronic illness is still a big presence in my life.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Moore

      Kathleen,
      So glad you can resonate! And how amazing that you are able to now effectively help others who are sick.

      Reply
  4. Kay salehi

    Thank you so much for giving loving words on how to be there for a cancer patient. I beat cancer once but you never feel free. Just live life with new veiw.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Moore

      Kay,
      Thank you for your kind comment! And so glad you are cancer-free! 🙂

      Reply
  5. Paula

    Thank you! I love the question examples you gave, besides how are you feeling. When my son was sick, I got tired of people asking how we were doing, because I knew it wasn’t a quick answer.
    I really appreciated the times people came, even if they had nothing to say. They just didn’t want us to be alone during one of his surgeries or waiting on scan results.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Moore

      Paula,
      Yes, it is so difficult to answer those generic questions. I’m glad you can relate and that you have supportive friends who were willing to simply be with you! 🙂

      Reply
  6. Sian Williams

    Thanks for sharing this firstly. Secondly, would you mind writing about how this impacted you spiritually? I’d find it really interesting – as would others I’m sure!

    xx

    Reply
    • Rebecca Moore

      Hi Sian,
      Thank you so much!
      I actually wrote quite a bit about how my cancer journey was affecting my faith in Jesus Christ while I was in the thick of it. Here is one post that really dives into that: https://rebeccarheamoore.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/all-my-deserts-are-rivers-of-joy/
      The “About me” section of my blog contains all that I wrote during my cancer journey, most of it regarding my faith. I hope they are helpful to you! 🙂
      Feel free to reach out if you have any more questions!

      Reply

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