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[This was written in response to a friend’s blog post, and originally left there as a comment. I will leave it to Friend to decide whether to link the original in a comment. Here is Micah’s original post.]

You can feel bad, while still recognizing that someone else feels worse. That’s okay.

You can be sympathetic, and wish you could do something, even when you can’t.

If you’re geographically nearby, and you offer to help, do the best you can to offer concrete things, rather than just “anything I can do.” Say, I will drive you to chemo next week, or I will make and freeze a casserole so you have something to eat that doesn’t require work (but ask what they can eat!), or loan them a stack of fun books or DVDs.

Someone newly diagnosed with cancer is swamped with generic “Anything I can do” but may still be at a loss for specifics.

And sometimes there isn’t anything you can do.

It does truly make a difference to know that other people notice. Moral support is still support, and it matters. Yes, even at the same time as there’s a glib “had this conversation five thousand times” veneer, it still matters.

Cancer is overwhelming, and all-encompassing. It’s all you do and think about for a while, and then you settle into the new routine of treatment, recovery from treatment, knowledge that your body has rebelled and is trying to kill you, if without intent or malice. Cancer instantly changes many of the things that form your self-identity, from “healthy” and “active” to more subtle things, like “reads a lot of fiction” or “writes on weekends.” Because you can’t always, and it’s soul-crushing far beyond the obvious.

And you’re right, you don’t know how that feels (and I’m happy for that), and you can’t help. And if you ask casually, you’ll probably hear “pretty good,” for whatever the current definition is. (Which may be: not dead and the anti-nausea meds are working, or it may be more or less than that.)

But if you ask again, you may hear more. And you still won’t be able to do anything except listen, but that’s better than turning away.

Be honest, look, speak, write. Don’t turn away. Fear thrives in secrecy and silence, the kind of fear that destroys people all on its own. Fight it in any way you can.


  1. Micah Joel says:

    It was me. Here’s the original posting: http://micahjoel.info/blog/2014/02/friends-with-cancer/

    I think this kind of public discourse is super valuable on both ends.

  2. Toni says:

    Oh, oh, I have one!

    Try not to flake when you do have something you can do!!

    (yes, I was sick, and yes, I know you understand, but it makes me mad at myself, anyway, so hush)

  3. Sarah says:

    Having the flu is not flaking!!!!!!

    Giving me the flu would be *so much worse*.


  4. Jessica says:

    I’m one of those too far away to be directly helpful people, but I am online a lot and not squeamish, so if you ever want to talk about this or anything, I am here. When you are up for a visit from us let us know and we will be there. I can’t tell you how much this helps to have some kind of direction. I know sometimes you want to say something, anything at all and can’t think of anything that doesn’t sound trite or insincere. I hope you are feeling well today. Kick that cancers ass!

  5. valerio says:

    Wonderful pretty lady.

    All of it, but the last paragraph is one of the best things I have ever read. Coming from an english major, please take it for the compliment that it entails.

    Hemingway would have been impressed.


  6. laura g says:

    Well said!
    The Kindness, care, and love seem to enter into the secret places where the fear and hurt exist. A healing salve upon other’s judgement, loosing the life one once had, the medical journey with it’s difficulties, the physical pains and changes from disease, treatments, or testing, and among the many more dark sides of disease. Even said poorly, loving intentions are easily felt and seem to cover a multitude of blunders.
    That said, I send love, hope, hugs and encouragement from my heart to yours.