RED Hearts: What to Say To a Friend With Cancer

RED Hearts are guests posts on I Heart Daily from the authors of RED: Teenage girls in America write on what fires up their lives today. Today's RED Hearts post is from Cindy Morand, 22, in New York, NY, who talked to documentary filmmaker, author and two-time cancer survivor Lori Hope about how to handle a loved one's illness:

As Seth Rogan’s and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s characters so spot-on remind us in 50/50, cancer touches young people’s lives, too -- lots of people know someone with the disease. (Will Reiser, Rogan’s best friend, wrote the “cancer comedy” based on his own diagnosis at age 24.) But sometimes we don’t know how to really be there for a loved one who’s ill. It’s new territory and can seem so scary, so easy to say or do the wrong thing.

Fortunately, Lori Hope has just revised and expanded her book, Help Me Live: 20 things people with cancer want you to know, an invaluable guide for pretty much any human being. We interviewed the inspiring author.

Cindy Morand: What are the things we should never say to someone with cancer? (We want to know!) Lori Hope: Never say “You poor thing!” (We want compassion, not pity. Pity implies an upper-lower status thing, like the healthy person is looking down.) Never say “My aunt/teacher’s mother/coach’s sister/etc. died of lung/breast/your kind of cancer.” (We want success stories, not horror stories!) And don’t go the “Just think positively and everything will be OK” route. (It can be impossible to think positively sometimes, and when people say that, we may superstitiously believe that we are making our cancer worse by feeling sad and hopeless. Sad and hopeless is to be expected at times.)

CM: Noted. We will never. What should we say? LH: Always say “I’m here for you, and I’m here to go through this with you.” (NOTE: Make sure you ARE there when you promise to be!) Say “I will run errands/provide meals/take you to a funny movie.” (Be specific when you offer to help.) Say “I love you.” This is the number-one thing people with cancer in my survey of more than 600 survivors say they wanted to hear.

CM: Other than thinking before we speak, what are some ways that girls and young women can help? LH: On a societal level, you can help by participating in cancer-support walks and other fundraisers. I recommend the Lung Cancer Alliance’s Shine A Light on Lung Cancer events. Lung cancer kills more women than any other cancer -- more than breast, cervical and ovarian cancer combined. But more important is what you can do on a personal level, by being there for friends and loved ones who are ill. When one person has cancer, the whole family has it.

CM: What lessons have you learned that you think young women can take away from your experience? LH: There is almost no greater satisfaction than knowing you have truly helped a friend. Seek that satisfaction, and listen to what your gut tells you about your friends. If someone doesn’t seem to want to be around you when times are really tough, know that you can choose people more willing to accept you even when you’re not at your best.

CM: How do we change the way society treats people who are ill (or old, or otherwise “different”)? LH: I would like society to find its heart again, to return to the “I am my brother’s/sister’s keeper” belief system. I want people to take the time and energy to realize that those who are suffering -- be it from cancer, depression, MS, eating disorders, anything -- need and deserve support and compassion. That means time. Open ears. Open hearts. Open minds.

CM: Speaking of…what are you “hearting” these days? LH: 50/50, see it! The Onion television (especially GOOMF); my terrier mix Bean and chihuahua mix Penny Too; and my stepmom, Jude, who’s one of my best friends.

RED Hearts guest poster Cindy Morand is an author of RED: Teenage girls in America write on what fires up their lives today, which is out in paperback.