Jen Kraemer-Smith and Andrea Delbanco's lives were totally in sync: After meeting 11 years ago while working at the same magazine, they both married around the same time, bought houses in New Jersey around the same time, and gave birth to their first children within 3 weeks of each other. "Even the kids love each other," Delbanco, 38, says. “We’ve gone through a lot together."
But in 2012, their lives diverged when Kraemer-Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer. "We struggled to find a way to openly talk about it," Delbanco says. "I didn't know how to help or feel comfortable asking certain things, but I also felt it wasn't thoughtful when I didn't ask."
The pair quickly realized that if cancer could cause such a divide between two dear friends, it could most certainly alienate people who weren't quite so close. "We figured out from our experiences that we could also help others," Kraemer-Smith, 43, says.
And so, The Cancer Conversation was born. The two friends launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, which is essentially a deck of cards full of questions to ask, treatment tips, and emotional support for cancer patients and their friends and family. "We want to make the conversation less complicated," Delbanco says, "no matter a person's age, cancer, or stage." (Want to take back control of your health? Prevention magazine has smart answers—get 2 FREE gifts when you subscribe today.)
After being cancer-free for almost 2 years, the disease returned in the form of a tumor in Kraemer-Smith's spine, and she credits her dear friend with helping her navigate this new reality. "It's difficult to be hopeful, but having somebody positive in your life really helps." (Here are 7 ways to be an amazing friend.)
Every patient is different, the duo stress, but there's comfort in findingcancer experiences that are shared. "When we were both pregnant, there was such an obvious course of action," Delbanco says. "There is so much comfort knowing women have walked the road before you and had the same thoughts and experiences," she says. "It's important to know there are also commonalities among cancer patients, even when the exact medical experience can't be replicated."
The Cancer Conversation is full of those commonalities—as well as questions a patient might never think to ask. It's the antidote to an Internet search (which is only bound to make you feel more anxious) with insightful wisdom and support. "When you're diagnosed, nobody knows what to do for you," Kraemer-Smith says. "We're trying to fill that void." In that spirit, here are 6 supportive things to say to someone with cancer.
"I'm putting in a load of laundry."
Or maybe, "I'm dropping dinner off at 5 PM," or "I'll pick the kids up today." Either way, don’t ask, just do. "It's hard enough to be sick, but it's worse to have to ask somebody for help," Kraemer-Smith says. If you know the patient well enough to announce your plans, go right ahead. If not, coordinate with a caregiver or closer friend. "Small gestures of support that don't involve getting the patient's feedback first are going to be appreciated," Delbanco agrees. (Take a look at this list of the 10 most painful conditions.)
"What are you thinking right now?"
Friends and family often want to be a cancer patient's top cheerleaders, but optimism needs to be carefully balanced with reality. "It's important to read the room," Delbanco says. "You'll be able to tell when it's not really the right time for optimism." It will be tempting to say something like, "It's going to be OK," and while the line is certainly well-intentioned, things really might not be OK. "Instead, try to ask someone how they're doing instead of projecting your own needs," Kraemer-Smith says. "Then, be responsive." (Most people ignore these 10 cancer symptoms.)
"What's off-limits to talk about?"
Avoid an awkward foot-in-mouth moment by simply asking where your friend has established boundaries. Let the person with cancer set the rules for the types of questions you should and shouldn't ask, then follow those rules. "Don't force it," the duo writes in the Cancer Conversation. "Let your friend know you're there whenever, for whatever they need. And try not to take it personally if he or she chooses not to open up to you about certain issues." (Never say these 10 things to someone who has cancer.)
"I'm thinking of you."
The best part of this simple message? No response necessary, Kraemer-Smith says. "My sister-in-law texts this to me," she says. "She's letting me know she's there for me and giving her support and didn't need a response." You won't add to a patient's nerves or discomfort the way you might if you were asking about specific test results or symptoms, but it sends the same reminder that you care about their health.
"I got a promotion at work."
You'll have to make sure it's the right time and place to do so, but talking about yourself (within reason) is not off-limits just because your friend is sick. In fact, it might be welcome contact with the outside world. "A good friend will want to still be in on the goings on of your life and doesn't need to be shielded or isolated," Delbanco says. "I think I handled this poorly, but I eventually got the hang of trying to be normal in conversation," she says.
The bad stuff might feel particularly tough to keep your friend current on without caveats. "My instinct was always to preface something with, 'I know this is no big deal, but...,'" Delbanco says. But leave out the fact that it pales in comparison to what they're going through. "They don't need to be constantly reminded that you realize your life is easier."
Sometimes simply listening is best, especially if you're typically a problem-solver. Rather than offering that superficial optimism or the alternative therapy options that worked for your great aunt when she had cancer, let the patient lead the conversation or sit in comfortable silence. Bonus: Silence helps you avoid telling that horrible comparison story of your coworker's husband's terrible experience with chemo.
"People think they're being empathetic, but those stories always make me more nervous," Kraemer-Smith says. "I need to focus on my own experience."