It may be in the hallway, the nurses station, a patient in a room talking about their friend, coworker, relative, teacher with cancer… "What do I say?”, they ask me. “What do I bring?” “What do I write in their card?”

Why is it so hard to talk to someone with cancer, we ask ourselves? Of course, it is about discomfort, fear of saying the wrong thing, too many implications in every sentence that you don’t know where to start. So we all know what the solution is – don’t go, don’t talk, drop off a pie and you will feel good.

Not that a pie isn’t welcome, don’t get me wrong. But let’s help those people not to feel afraid of doing the wrong thing.

1. Be a good listener. This is reflective listening as they unload anything on their mind. You may reflect back a word to reinforce your listening or reflect the emotion that the story reveals but this is not a time for your comparison or how you can understand how they feel …. Because, no one can; but you have genuine empathy from your journey.

2. What to bring? Everyone is different but universally, when you are feeling down and body image has been seriously challenged, anything you would not buy yourself is a treat. From body lotion to face cream, as long as you feel special. I was always freezing with sucking ice chips in chemo and ice packs wrapped on my hands – a blanket for hospital or home naps was special. Cozy slippers, socks, cool hats lined in soft fleece are welcome. An inspirational quote on a necklace or plaque helps you stay grounded too. A ticket in your pocket from lottery to a show is a fun way to keep you going through chemo weeks. Most importantly, bring yourself and effort.

3. How long do I stay? Your visit is needed and welcomed but usually energy is low so 1 hour is often max. as brain and voice are exhausted. Calling, text, email before you come and never taking it personally if it is not a good day is really important. Planning for the time furthest from chemo works best. Walk and talk is always a good idea since exercise is so important and easier with encouragement.

4. What do I say? People ask me… “What do I say if she asks me how I look?” The person inside didn’t change, you don’t have to apologize if you slip up on a word – it is a time to laugh at yourself and notice the amazing spirit behind their skin. It is an exercise of looking past the outside and noticing inner strength and struggles together. Noticing the present and enjoying the moment with forgiveness of what you can’t do and taking a new look at the smaller things.

5. What do I put in a card? Just don’t put “Get better soon” arghhh! I have a few wonderful quotes and an Apache poem that my husband gave me engraved on a pendant and goes well inside a card. There are some great empowering, inspirational cards I have seen. In emails, it helps to send positive energy and say you are thinking of them. As I received emails from around the world, I remembered one from my friend in England who was on the subway in London thinking of me and sending me energy. I think I even felt the energy coming in the words. It just seemed so powerful coming across thousands of miles to my heart. Random times, just thinking of you, made me feel included even when lying in bed. We feel forgotten – like the world will continue without us. It is that sense of belonging that is so human and needed.

Apache Poem
May the sun bring you new energy by day
May the moon softly restore you by night
May the rain wash away your worries
May the breeze blow new strength into your being
May you walk gently through the world
And know its beauty all the days of your life.

6. How often do I go? The most important message is to be there for the whole journey. We all have a tendency to bring the pie at the beginning when there is a diagnosis and surgery, the family is in shock and a hot meal is certainly welcome. But, just as the Cancer Blues points out, cancer's emotional fallout is hidden on the inside. When chemo ends, you are just beginning to realize the fragility of your life and how it all nearly ended, with a foggy road ahead as your only compass. The life of control and heroic energy is replaced by doubt, fatigue, pain and uncertainty. We have to get used to that and it takes years. Be the friend or companion who understands that journey. Be there at the beginning, the middle, after chemo, after their first day at work, on a chemo visit and their car ride, at their cancer anniversary, at their end of treatment party and coffee after the next mammogram or oncology follow up. Just check in. Celebrate milestones however small.