Cancer hits a friend: What should we say? How do they feel?

CLEVELAND, Ohio – In the last 15 months, I’ve had four friends diagnosed with cancer.

All of them are younger than your recently Medicare eligible columnist.

Breast cancer. Prostate cancer. Spinal cancer. And non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. While I’m not a close friend of Tribe pitcher Carlos Carrasco, I know him. You can add him to the list as he dueled with leukemia last year.

“It’s still out there,” said my friend, Dr. Diana Swoope.

The pastor of Akron’s Arlington Church of God, Swoope has battled several forms of cancer over the last 10 years. More than once, she has been told the end is near...but she is still here.

And so is cancer, despite how COVID-19 dominates medical media attention.

None of this is to dismiss the virus. But the American Cancer Association projects 1.8 million new cancer cases in 2020 with about 600,000 expected to die from cancer.

These stats have been falling for years thanks to medical research. But we’re still talking about 1,500 people dying each day from cancer.

As one friend emailed me: “I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s aggressive. I had a mammogram in January and it didn’t show any new issues. I will do six sessions of chemo over 18 weeks. Then surgery. Then more chemo and radiation. I’m going to bed now. The last two weeks have been overwhelming.”


My friend’s email led inspired this column.

“Tell anyone who has cancer it’s OK to be afraid,” said Swoope. “I don’t care how strong your faith is, it will be a challenge. You will be afraid.”

Swoope mentioned after one tough day at the doctor’s office, she got into her car “and cried my eyes out” in the parking lot before going home.

If you’re with a person and they want to cry, let them cry.

“Don’t try to say things right then to make them feel better,” said Swoope. “Just be there. Just listen. Just encourage them and pray for them. Hold their hand. It’s not up to you to fix them.”

One of Swoope’s points is cancer “is a journey...each day presents a different challenge. Some days, you just won’t feel well, you’ll barely be able to get out of bed.”

It’s scary. Everyone probably knows someone who has died from cancer. But we often forget about how many people we know who have survived cancer.

And never tell someone who has cancer, “Oh, I had a friend who had liver cancer like you. He died in nine months.”

Yes, people say things like that.

“I had a woman tell me she could never have her breast cut off,” said Rochelle. “Like I had a choice when I had breast cancer twice.”

Yes, people say dumb things like that, too.

“Be careful what you google,” said Swoope. “After 10 years, I can smell the bad stuff. Some of the survivor websites are very helpful. Other stuff will just make you feel worse.”


I brought up the issue of cancer on my facebook page, asking for feedback.

"After I got cancer, I had a person at work say, ‘You’re not going to come back wearing a wig? That’s kind of awkward, don’t you think?’ " wrote Tricia.

Chemotherapy often leads to hair loss, along with a variety of other physical side effects.

She explained the discouraging part of wearing a wig isn’t vanity, “it’s a reminder that even on good days, not all is all right.”

Rochelle told me about how someone tried to sell her an expensive wig. She didn’t find out until later that the American Cancer Society can help someone secure a free wig.

“It’s important for the self esteem of most women to get a wig,” she added.

Kim wrote about a friend wanting to know how her chemo treatments were going. Kim started to explain, and the lady said, “That’s nothing...and told me about her sister’s horrible complications and near death from treatments.”

Several readers with cancer said please don’t tell them “You don’t look sick.” What is the person with cancer supposed to say to that?

So many people with cancer told me “I’m more than cancer.” They sometimes don’t want to talk about cancer.

“Write cards with funny sayings,” wrote Melissa. “Talk about normal stuff. Tell them to take it moment by moment. I still have the cards people sent me when I was going through cancer.”

Richard said both of his parents died of cancer. Near the end of their lives, they spent a lot of time talking about the good things that happened over the years.

“We focused on the joy and it led to peace,” wrote Richard.

But a key point is understand a person with cancer may not have the energy to see you that day...and they should also feel free to tell you that. Don’t make them feel guilty.

The cards. The prayers. The texts. The phone calls. The listening.

“All of those things mean so much when you’re going through cancer,” said Swoope.

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