Communication: Asking the Right Questions to Better Understand

When you go through cancer treatment and come out on the other side, you gain some wisdom and perspective by default. You find a deeper appreciation for life. All the things that seemed small or insignificant before, suddenly become crystal clear, and you realize these little moments really matter. Things like your time with friends and family, a smile from a stranger, or a beautiful sunset, becomes more valuable than money or status. You also recognize the strength in you that you may not have known existed. You find a greater appreciation for your body and its resiliency. These certain aspects can make it sound like you are living in constant bliss, where you are always excited and happy about being able to live. The reality is I still have to sort out and make sense of every aspect of my life that was affected by my diagnosis, which is everything. This positivity and these self-realizations are not always present. There are many battles to be fought even after remission. The weight and pain of what you've survived is carried on even after treatment ends, and it's a constant battle to keep myself positive.

I feel more confused and unsure of every detail of myself, the world I live in, my life, and what I want to do with it. There are days when I feel so lucky and fortunate to have survived and got a second chance. Then there are days where I feel like crying because I wish it would've taken me so I wouldn't have to process and deal with this new world and the new me that I awoke to. I don't feel I have the ground beneath me yet because almost everything I knew to be true ended up being wildly different. The person I was before my diagnosis is not the person here before you today, and I am still learning about this new person. Without that foundation of knowing myself, it is difficult trusting my judgments. I ask myself, "Do I genuinely like what I am doing?" or, "Is this just an old habit that feels familiar?" There is a lack of security once you have lost everything. It's hard to trust or believe in anything anymore, including myself. How can I invest in a relationship when people I thought would be in my life forever so quickly left? How do I feel secure in a job when I could lose a career overnight? How do I feel stable and confident in anything when I have experienced how one sentence from a doctor can take all of it away?

I don't feel joy in the same way, and I feel more disconnected from everyone I love. I often get advice or judgments from others who haven't been through it. People say things like, "after what you've been through, this probably seems like nothing" or "how can you let this bother you after what you have been through?" as if I always compare everything I am going through against cancer. What a fucking nightmare that would be. If anything, certain things bother me now more than ever. It's easy for my brain to continue to fear what I fear and build it into a monumental disaster because my feeling of safety is gone, and faith that things will work out has been forever disrupted. There are feelings of abandonment and being forgotten that corrupt and sour everything happy that has happened since. There is this disconnect once you share your story with people that they can no longer ever complain or tell you about anything in their life because it seems insignificant compared to cancer. You are now this outsider looking in on the rest of the world that hasn't been through it, which only furthers feeling alienated and lost. Cancer becomes your identity, whether you want it to or not.

You are moved into the "other" category. There is this deep need I have to share what I've been through, to be seen and heard; to process. What ends up happening is I become one of two things: I am either seen as this person who has been broken and needs sympathy, or I am the person who survived, changed my life, and now lives this beautiful life full of peace and happiness. It's either "poor me", or "you're so lucky".

This disconnect and confusion we feel is a commonality I have found with most survivors. We strongly desire people to understand, to have patience, and to stay beside us. How do you show support for something impossible to fully understand? How do you communicate with someone on a topic that you know nothing about? What questions do you ask that allows the survivor to feel comfortable and safe enough to open up? I believe it's the small, consistent gestures that make the most significant difference. We don't need you to relate or compare, and we definitely don't fucking ever want advice, we just need to know you are there for us.

I found this great chart from Cancer Care Parcel that explains what people typically say and what they could say that would be better received and understood. Something as simple as reframing a question can lead to better trust, better communication, and better understanding. Asking the right questions and avoiding specific conversations can help to build back stability. It can create an environment that is ideal for healing.

Simple adjustments like saying, "I don't know what to say" over being silent is powerful. Volunteering to help by saying, "let me know when you need help with ____" makes it much easier to ask for help when you need it than "if there is anything I can do, let me know." There are also many statements people make to sound as if they care without actually wanting to get involved or hear a response. These are the most common that I have come across and allowed the person to feel like they did something beautiful. At the same time, it leaves the survivor feeling like they have to mask what it is they are going through as not to burden that person. Things like "Don't worry," "I'm sure you'll be fine," or "If anyone can beat this, it's you." They sound nice, but without asking any further questions or listening, it feels very disingenuous and cold.

This goes for the time after diagnosis, during treatment, and post-treatment recovery. At all these times, we need to feel safe and supported. There is often a wealth of support after diagnosis, and then as time goes on, it becomes less and less. A few complications and extensions and people begin to feel tired of hearing about it. By the time you are done with treatment, it's common for people to say they are sick of hearing about it. "When are you going to move on?" "You are done with treatment, it's time to let that go." "We have heard enough about you and what you have been through." I've personally heard all of these and many more.

I believe it is our responsibility as someone affected by cancer, either personally or through a loved one, to communicate better. If you are someone who wants to help, take some time to educate yourself on what is helpful and what is not. If you are going through treatment and aren't getting the support, you feel you need. I hope you can show these examples and open a dialogue that helps you feel better understood and capable of expressing your feelings.

*If you are looking for gift ideas for someone in treatment check out Cancer Care Parcel for gift packages for any age*

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