Resolution

I started 2015 by waxing lyrically on how each day, each hour, each moment offers an opportunity to start again. I was so glad to leave 2014 behind and begin to craft a new year that was happier and easier than the previous one.

Ha ha ha ha ha. *sigh*

Let’s revisit my resolutions and see how I got on, shall we?

1.  Complete two crochet projects by the end of 2015. NOPE! I did start a project, but I certainly didn’t finish it. I’m not too far off, and I have been thinking about it a lot lately, so maybe I’ll get around to that soon… *

The unfinished project
The unfinished project

2. Update my science blog at least once a week. FAIL! I wrote a couple of posts, which I managed purely by finding topics that I could write about as part of my full-time job and then co-opt for the blog. Despite my inability to make much progress with Anthrophysis, I have managed to write several articles for publication in popular science magazines, contribute to an academic book chapter, and review a book for an academic journal. I think I should get points for those.

3. Practice whistling at least twice a week (and learn some new songs!). NOT EVEN CLOSE. Since moving into my new flat, I’ve only whistled once, though not for lack of wanting or having time. The walls here are thin and I hate the idea of my neighbors listening in, so I am reluctant to pick up my instruments. Considering that my hall mates routinely wake me up at 4am by throwing drunken tantrums in the hall, I really shouldn’t be so timid.

4. Continue making one-second-a-day videos to document my life. NO. This project lasted all of one week before I decided that, actually, I was satisfied with my 2014 effort, and didn’t really need to repeat that for 2015.  Making the videos is interesting and fun on days that are full of unusual activity, but it’s a real chore on quieter days or when you’re unwell. I know the whole point is to gather together clips that show how every day is valuable and stimulating in its own way, but I just couldn’t face another 365 days of worrying about this.

5. Take a selfie every day (as done by Justin Peters–for philosophical reasons and not because I’m excessively vain!). NOPE! I started off pretty well and was fairly consistent for the first half of the year, but then my zest for this project slowly faded away because I had more important things to think about. In retrospect, I can see where it would have been interesting to document the whole cancer thing via the selfie project–especially the hair loss–but I opted instead to take photos of key moments rather than every single moment.

Key moment: Caitlin's first turban
Key moment: Caitlin’s first turban

6. Add variety to my workout schedule by doing more Pilates and tai chi. KIND OF. My new flat is tiny and doesn’t leave much room for these sorts of exercises. However, I have managed to squeeze some in, and I’ve been particularly enjoying the 30-day challenges posted on Blogilates.

7. Write e-mails to my family more often. MAYBE. I don’t know that I write the sort of chatty, newsy e-mails I was envisioning when I set this resolution, but I think I probably do send more total messages as a result of firing off a larger number of quick, short updates. I still need to work on writing my grandparents more, though.

8. Go birding more often. NOT REALLY. However, I have had some very enjoyable bird sightings over the course of the year, so perhaps I can go for a quality over quantity argument here. I had some great woodpecker and jay encounters while walking between the train station and hospital in Truro; I have spotted grebes and tufted ducks at Swanpool, instead of the standard fare of mallards, coots, and gulls; and I had a delightful time watching acrobatic long-tailed tits during a lunch break on campus. There were also some kinglets and bullfinches sprinkled across the year, and those species are always a treat.

9. Try a new baked goods recipe at least once a month, and take the fruits of my labor (assuming they are edible!) to work to share with my colleagues. NOPE! I think I managed to do this only once–when I made an apple cake that I didn’t want to eat all by myself. That said, it’s not like I baked and didn’t share; it’s more that I didn’t bake at all. I have, however, continued to cook, so I think I still get some culinary points there.

10. Read at least 30 books. YES! Hallelujah, I actually achieved one of my goals! In fact, according to Goodreads, I read 42 books. Go, me!

My 2015 reads
My 2015 reads

Out of ten resolutions, then, I only managed to fully and definitely accomplish one; if you give me credit for partial accomplishment of a couple others, then perhaps–if you are feeling generous–you’ll allow me to score myself 2/10. That’s still a pretty abysmal record, and a failing grade.

But you know what? I don’t feel like I failed, and that’s because, for everything here that I didn’t do, there was something else that I did do. I went to Key West and Portugal for the first time. I saw my book Flamingo published. I was nominated for three professional services recognition awards at work. I put together a puzzle for the first time in a decade. I shaved my head. I rented a car and drove myself all over Cornwall. I chatted with friends I haven’t been in touch with in years.

I was active–I just wasn’t active in quite the way I envisioned I would be. This may sound a bit like post hoc justification of what I did and didn’t do in 2015, but when I look back now on my resolutions, I can’t help but think that I might have had a less interesting, and perhaps even less fulfilling, year if I had doggedly pursued all those goals I set in January. They involve a lot of regimentation, a lot of box-ticking, a lot of work. Yes, they also involve things I love, but would I continue to love them after forcing them on myself in such a strict way? Perhaps not. I don’t know that I want to perform the experiment and find out.

I also don’t like the idea of limiting myself. For every task that you chisel into the stone of your yearly calendar, there are other activities that you may be rendering impossible by pre-emptively robbing yourself of the time and energy needed to pursue alternatives that serendipitously fall into your lap. You limit spontaneity and whimsy. Could resolutions, therefore, actually prevent you from enjoying life more fully and growing as a person? Wouldn’t that be counterproductive?

Spontaneity: visiting with an unexpected guest
Spontaneity: visiting with an unexpected guest

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do know this: In 2015, for the first time since I was a little girl, I allowed myself to have whole days that weren’t planned in advance, on which I sometimes achieved nothing tangible at all–and I liked it. I enjoyed letting go and being less rigid and just…going with the flow. I enjoyed living.

I am, of course, only one person, and what works for me may not work for the rest of humanity. However, I can tell you from experience that you can get an awful lot out of your time even without a massive to-do list perpetually hanging over your head and reminding you of what you should do and how you should do it. Whatever you decide is right for your personality and circumstances, just go for it. Now. Don’t waste time. Every second is precious, and each one is an opportunity. Seize it.

*Update: As of 6:45pm, the crochet project is finished! Also, I remembered that I crocheted a small gift at Christmastime. So, actually…I think I did pretty well here. Woo-hoo!

Looking good, feeling better

Over the last few months, I have probably received more compliments about my appearance than I have during my entire adult life. I haven’t yet figured out whether I’ve somehow managed to suddenly start looking amazing, or whether I simply look better than people expect of someone who has cancer.

Blue Steel, daaaahling.
Don’t be jealous of my gorgeousness, daaaahling.

I suspect it’s the latter, combined with the fact that I looked absolutely dreadful for the several months during which my first cancer symptoms were keeping me awake half the night; compared to my haggard appearance back at the beginning of the summer, I look like Gisele Bundchen. If it’s the former, however, I have to give thanks to a couple of local experts from whose wisdom I have greatly benefitted–at a very tumultuous moment in my life.

The first is Katrina from House of Colour Cornwall. Along with three of my friends, I visited Katrina this past spring in order to have my colors done. Being stubborn, skeptical, and not really all that interested in fashion or beauty, I felt sure that the assessment would be a waste of my time and money. After pronouncing me an Autumn, Katrina sent me off with three new lipsticks and a little wallet of color swatches to help me weed non-autumn colors from my wardrobe and more efficiently shop for new items to replace the ones I’d just culled.

Some of my autumn hues
Some of my autumn hues

Although it took me a while to get used to the lipsticks–for someone who generally prefers a natural look, they were a bit too obviously makeup–I enthusiastically applied my new color rules, which, literally, brightened up my day. Much of the autumn palette comprises colors I already wore because they are my favorite shades, but there are also other hues that I have always avoided because I thought they didn’t suit me. I have become emboldened when shopping, trying on purples and greens and golds that I used to pass by; on the flip side, I’ve also snubbed quite a few things that I would previously have been tempted to waste my money on. Shopping is more efficient, and, even better, I mix and match components of my previous wardrobe differently, which makes me feel as though I’ve got a whole closet full of new outfits. It’s fun, bright, cheerful, and lighthearted–all very uplifting and positive things at any time, but especially when you are going through a rough patch in life.

The second contribution to my makeover came from Michelle at Sublime Boutique Spa. I consulted with her when I was still awaiting my lymphoma diagnosis, and was suffering horribly from my mysterious itchiness. I didn’t want to slather my sensitive facial skin with the Aveeno cream that I was using elsewhere on my body, so I was seeking some other method of moisturizing. Michelle recommended a quartet of products from Pinks Boutique, a purveyor of “luxury organic beauty products.”  I was initially nervous because of their price but decided to take the plunge because I’ve spent my whole adult life buying more economical products and feeling unsatisfied with my complexion; I figured it couldn’t hurt to experiment with something upscale to see if it made a difference.

Five months later, I’m still working my way through my first Pinks investments, and I couldn’t be happier. My skin looks and feels better than it has in years, and I am not self-conscious about going out in public makeup-free. I started receiving compliments very shortly after beginning my new skin care regime, and have frequently heard the words “radiant” and “glowing” applied to my appearance–which, considering that this has been a fairly tough time, just goes to show the benefit of a good skincare routine.

To an outsider, it may seem wasteful and pointless to dwell on externals like these during a major crisis, but I have found it to be very diverting and empowering and just generally pleasant, during a period when pleasant things can be few and far between. I recently ran across a blog in which the author, Sali Hughes, shared similar sentiments on the relevance of aesthetics; she describes how a friend adhered to her beauty regimen throughout chemotherapy because it allowed her to maintain her self–not just her daily routine and her ideal style, but also the physical appearance of which her disease threatened to rob her. Hughes writes, “During chemo, she drew on brows not because she was remotely ashamed of her cancer, but because she felt entitled not to be defined by it, and to enjoy the same level of privacy. These rituals were vital coping mechanisms for her. She wasn’t vain, shallow or in denial. She was just unembarrassed that beauty – along with literature, music and a hundred other things – was part of who she was, and determined that cancer would not erode both her character and her body.” 

I think this passage helps explain the benefit of  Look Good Feel Better, an international charity that aims to improve the lives of cancer patients by providing them a means to feel good about themselves. At LGFB clinics, cancer patients are given a complimentary bag of cosmetic products and then receive a tutorial on techniques for skin care and makeup application; the ultimate goal is to ensure that each woman feels able to take charge of, and feel confident in, her own appearance, regardless of how cancer may be affecting her.

Contents of my Look Good Feel Better bag
Contents of a typical Look Good Feel Better bag

My nurse signed me up for a session, which I felt a little reluctant to attend because I was very hazy on what it would entail; mostly I was worried I would have to talk to strangers, which, as we all know, is not my favorite pastime. It was, however, a very pleasant afternoon, and I’m so glad I didn’t talk myself out of going. For one thing, I did actually learn some useful information about makeup. Did you know, for example, that it is easier to sharpen an eyeliner pencil if you stick it in the freezer for about 20 minutes beforehand? Or that makeup will last longer if you keep it in the packaging in which you bought it? Or that you can cover your lips with foundation if you’d like to make your lipstick adhere better?

Literature from my LGFB day
Literature from my LGFB day

Anti-social though I may be, I have to admit that I felt, and enjoyed, the sense of team spirit that pervaded the room–a silent acknowledgement that all the ladies there were bound together by a shared life challenge. I never heard anyone discuss cancer outright, but of course we all knew that we were in the same boat, and I think that it engendered a feeling of sisterhood and support. As we all tried new makeup techniques, or acted as guinea pigs on which the session leaders demonstrated application styles, there were lots of compliments and words of encouragement. Everyone helped each other and had nothing but positive comments. The room was full of goodwill, and laughter, and joie de vivre; people were having fun, and that’s not always an easy thing when you’re undergoing treatment for cancer.

At the end of the session, I felt happier and more relaxed, simply from spending a couple of hours thinking about something other than cancer and chemotherapy. A few months ago, I would have said that a two-hour makeup tutorial was a frivolous way to spend an afternoon; now, I recognize that frivolity is all in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes you have to use whatever tool you can find to help you achieve happiness and a feeling of strength.

Post-makeover. I'm not sure the auburn-ish eyebrow pencil was quite the right shade for me...
Post-makeover. I’m unlikely to ever wear this much makeup in real life, but it was still fun to put on.

This is the logic behind the sartorial routine I developed for chemo day. When I was preparing for my first treatment, I decided that I needed a ritual for my fortnightly visit to the hospital–something that would express my feeling of defiance while also cheering me up and making the day more bearable. I decided on two simple rules: First, I would always wear a dress or skirt; and, second, birds would always feature somewhere in my outfit.

En route to chemo
En route to chemo, wearing a fab turban given to me by fellow vintage-lover Regan Early

Of all the things to be worrying about on the eve of pumping my body full of toxic chemicals, it seems a bit ridiculous to spend so much time and effort contemplating fashion, doesn’t it? And yet, every minute that I spend staring into my closet and picking out the perfect jewelry and ironing my clothes, I’m not fretting about cancer. Or feeling like a victim. Or thinking, “Tomorrow is going to be so awful.” Instead, I’m reveling in the opportunity to wear new shoes or whip out a hat I haven’t worn in five years or sashay around town in a flamingo-print dress. I am laughing in the face of lymphoma.

When I was standing in line before one of my first appointments, the woman behind me complimented my multicolored hat and approvingly said, “It’s good to wear something to brighten this place up.” I was so pleased that someone else recognized, and appreciated, what I was doing. It’s not like I see myself as some sort of hero–that would be the nurses and doctors who patiently tend to a horde of patients each day. I just wanted to take a cue from the folks who are willing to go out on a limb and be the only ones to wear a costume to work on Halloween, or commit to the craziest Christmas sweater during the holidays, or dress up like their favorite character for a movie premier–the sort of people who fully and un-self-consciously throw themselves into crafting a certain look simply because it makes them happy. I’ve always admired those people, and they’ve always brought a smile to my face–but I’ve never really been brave enough to be one myself. I figured this was as good a time as any to give it a go, and I’m pleased with the outcome. The receptionists have referred to me as “the one who always looks so glamorous,” which is great for my self-esteem; even better, I see people smiling when they see me, and sometimes I end up chatting with fellow patients about where I got my shoes or how best to pair a hat with an outfit–and for a few minutes, none of us is thinking about cancer.

For some reason, all the beauty stuff reminds me of this cartoon:

Source: http://www.lunarbaboon.com/comics/powers.html

There are all sorts of things that can make even the worst day better–listening to a great song, reading your favorite poem, giving change to a busker out on the street, wearing your brightest scarf. If it lifts your spirits, then it’s worth doing; if it also benefits someone else in some way, all the better. Even the littlest things can quickly add up and foster a sense of happiness, and that happiness invariably spreads from one person to the next. This is true not just in the best of times, but also in the worst–maybe even especially in the worst, when it’s otherwise all too easy to sink down under the weight of worry and fear and a feeling of helplessness. You may not be able to control the larger situation, but you can tackle little bite-sized portions, and that modicum of control may just be enough to give you the hope and energy you need to keep on going. Who knows what a different shade of lipstick and a dashing new hat can help you achieve?

In all seriousness, and to return to the theme with which I began this post, I have no idea what it is that people are seeing when they compliment my appearance. It’s true that the Pinks products and Autumn colors are great, but they can’t be that great. If there really is something different about me, it’s the fact that I feel much less inclined to waste time worrying about unimportant stuff; a cancer diagnosis does have a tendency to put things into perspective. There were hundreds of little niggling thoughts that used to plague me on a daily basis, but now I just shrug them off. I refuse to waste time and energy on anything other than healing and getting as much out of life as possible.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my new, more carefree attitude has removed some furrows from my brow and added a sparkle to my eye. I’m just ashamed that it’s taken such a drastic and traumatic life event to help me prioritize better. All the same, I’m pleased to have the opportunity for a reset–from the cellular level on up! I feel a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning…only with more makeup and some very fashionable bird-themed accessories.

Not a how-to guide for responding to your loved one’s cancer diagnosis

It’s been awhile since I last posted, and that’s because I’ve been pondering–trying to figure out what I think about certain things, and then wondering whether I should discuss my potentially controversial opinions in public. But in this era of social media, if it isn’t online, it didn’t happen, right? Actually, just kidding; there are plenty of things I think that people should keep to themselves, but the whole point of blogging about cancer is to share the reality of it all, in the hopes that it might help someone else who has cancer, or who is watching a loved one deal with it. The Everywhereist recently overcame nerves and wrote honestly about her personal experiences with mental illness and violence, so I will follow her lead and also take the plunge into the ice-cold waters of truthfulness.

My contemplations began when a friend of mine shared this article about how you can help families with new babies. From almost the very first line, I recognized parallels between new moms/dads and cancer patients undergoing treatment. The article starts by listing some of the things that friends frequently say–sentiments such as “Let me know if you need a hand..” and “Give me a call if you need anything.” I’ve heard some version of those from nearly everyone around me, as well as more specific offers to assist with cleaning, cooking, running errands, driving me to appointments, and finding ways to entertain me when I am bedridden. In fact, I’ve been amazed by just how many people have expressed a willingness to pitch in; I’ve been approached not just by those closest to me, but also by colleagues and acquaintances I don’t even know all that well. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic and idealistic, but I think that these offers are all genuine; people really do want to help, and would spring into action if I requested it.

But herein lies the problem: I am just not the sort of person to who would ever ask such favors. The author of the new-baby article recognizes that there are others like me; she writes, “If you’re too shy to ask for help and make straight requests of people, I suggest sending the following list out to your friends and family. These are the things I have found to be missing in every house [with a new baby]. It’s actually easy and fun for outsiders to remedy these problems for the new parents but there seems to be a lot of confusion about what’s wanted and needed…” This is a great idea and would be extremely helpful to everyone itching to be generous but not entirely sure how.

However, it still involves reaching out, requesting–or at the very least allowing–assistance, and admitting that you are not entirely up to the task at hand. These are all things that I am terrible at doing. I’m independent and willful and stubborn. I’m very private (yes, I admit the irony of writing that in a blog post). I’m a perfectionist and I can’t bear the idea that someone might see me not at my best. Also, while I would do practically anything to help out one of my friends, I am horrified by the very thought of burdening anyone else with the task of spending time or money or effort on me.

Adding more complexity to this is the fact that I am an introvert. An extreme introvert. I find social interactions exhausting, even if those interactions involve only one other person and are, in every other conceivable way, pleasant experiences. Basically, I am a human version of this:

Sugar, who is not sweet.
Sugar, who is not sweet.

This is my parents’ cat, Sugar. She wants companionship and attention and affection, but only on her own terms. If you try to offer any of the above when she is not in the mood, she will bite and scratch you; she might also even leave a retaliatory poo in the middle of the room. Luckily, I’m better trained than that, but you get the idea: Introverts just don’t like to be forced into contact with other beings.

I battled my introversion for a long time because I always felt abnormal and embarrassed and guilty. Then I finally tired of having to pretend to be something I’m not. Conveniently, this occurred around the time when the Internet suddenly decided introversion was not only acceptable, but even sometimes highly beneficial. If you’ve been online at any point in the last few years, you’ve probably seen one of the “Are you an introvert or an extrovert?” quizzes and you may have read a bit about the difference between these two categories.

What you may not have been exposed to are some of the more interesting (read: challenging) little nuances of introversion. For example, while introverts tend to avoid social interactions–especially unexpected and unregulated ones–we may still occasionally enjoy simply being surrounded by people; this is why, during weekends of otherwise self-imposed solitary confinement in my apartment, I always make sure to run errands at some point so that I am exposed to other beings even for just a little while. If I don’t do this, I can become lonely and depressed. That’s because I’m merely human (yes, I admit it!), and Homo sapiens is, fundamentally, a social creature.

Another important detail is that introverts tend to have fewer close relationships. I have never been particularly good at making or keeping friends, and it’s taken over three decades for me to surround myself with a (small) group of people who are both aware and tolerant of the fact that sometimes I simply can’t face even the most seemingly innocuous of social gatherings, and who won’t take my absences personally. Most introverts do actually want friends, regardless of what our behavior suggests, and we are capable of forming quite strong bonds–sometimes without people even realizing just how attached we feel. The diminutiveness of our social circles, along with the deep affection for each person in that circle, means that it can be especially painful when even just one person becomes more distant or leaves the circle altogether.

You may think that I’ve gone on a tangent that has nothing to do with cancer, but, in fact, it has everything to do with the first point raised in this blog entitled “The Things I Wish I Were Told When I Was Diagnosed With Cancer”. Although there are several things here I don’t identify with because I’ve been so very lucky with my own diagnosis, there are others that ring true, and overall I think this is essential reading for anyone experiencing cancer either first- or second-hand.

The author, Jeff Tomczek, discusses nine things he learned while dealing with his own leukemia. Here is the one that tops the list: Your relationships are about to change. All of them. Some will get stronger. They will probably not be with the people you would expect. The people you want to handle this well might not be able to for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons will be selfish. Some of them will be entirely innocent and circumstantial. All of them will be forgivable because no one plans for cancer. Carrying bitterness or anger won’t help your recovery. Fighting for anyone to stick with you won’t cure you. Those who can, will.”

Truer words have never been written. I have experienced sadness, exasperation, confusion, hurt, gratitude, humility, surprise, and joy–among other emotions–as a result of how the people around me have responded to my diagnosis and treatment. There are folks who have dropped right off the map. There are others who have arrived to take their place. There are old and distant friends who have gotten in touch out of the blue. There have been conspicuous silences, but also copious e-mails, texts, Facebook messages, phone calls, and surprise care packages. There have been people who made contact just after the diagnosis and never since, and others who check in regularly as the treatment proceeds. Some people behaved just as I expected, while others were a bit of a shock–in both cases, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.

Shortly after I decided to blog about the lymphoma, I made a list of things I thought I’d like to write about. One of these was “what to do/say when someone you know has cancer.” That topic was inspired by the surreal hilarity that ensued when I began disclosing my diagnosis and upcoming treatment. I had originally formed a very black-and-white mental list of guidelines and suggestions based on the things I’d heard and experienced, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation, except maybe this one, from an article on friendships among adults: BE THERE. (More on this later.)

As with so many things–perhaps all things–there is no black-and-white dichotomy; we exist in a grey area when it comes to figuring out how to deal with tragedy. Maybe you have a friend with cancer, but you are an introvert and reaching out is difficult. Maybe your friend is an introvert and will find it difficult to have a spoken conversation about such sensitive things. Maybe you are far away or are currently battling your own vicious demons; maybe you have the time and energy to give more than he/she needs or wants. Maybe your friend is incapable of asking for help even when it is unavoidably necessary; maybe he/she will be a bit of a diva and requires reassurance and assistance 24/7. Maybe you both will vacillate from day to day, feeling and behaving inconsistently. Who knows It’s all very complex. You are who you are. Other people are who they are. It’s tricky to achieve compatibility and comfort even in the best of times, and cancer is most definitely not the best of times.

To be honest, probably my favorite interaction so far involved a colleague who simply shrugged when I was forced to mention my diagnosis during a conversation in which we were trying to make plans for the future. I’m not entirely sure I can explain the gesture, but I actually found it refreshing because it allowed us to just…move on. Another person might have been offended or hurt by that response, as might I had the shrug come from someone else. It’s all about context.

This is just one of the reasons why Tomczek is absolutely right to advise that you forgive people and avoid feeling bitter; I would add that this should be true not only of how you act towards others, but also towards yourself. At some point, cancer is probably going to make you act unlike the person you (think you) are. An independent individual may feel needy; a giving person may feel selfish; a gentle soul may get angry. These changes may make you question yourself, and they may influence your interactions with the people around you. You and your circle of family and friends just need to be aware of this, and be willing to act flexibly and adapt to the situation.

Although I originally started thinking about all of these things from the perspective of a cancer patient on the receiving end of other people’s attention (or lack thereof), I’ve since realized that my mental ramblings have broader relevance (for once). There have been many times when people in my life have experienced some sort of trauma or difficulty, and, having not been in their position before, I wasn’t really sure how best to proceed; I think it would be fair to say that I sympathized, but I didn’t necessarily empathize. As a result, no matter how good my intentions were, I stumbled into a course of action that wasn’t necessarily optimal either for them or for me.

Similar complexities and considerations are consistent across most tough situations in life, regardless of whether someone has cancer or has lost a job or is grieving or even has experienced something pleasant but challenging, such as the arrival of a new baby, as mentioned at the start of this blog. When these things happen, you don’t have to think or act in platitudes and cliches, and, in fact, everyone will be happier if you don’t. Pause for a moment and think about who you’re dealing with; then think about yourself. What is best for your loved one, but also feels natural to you? What will be helpful now, but also ensure a healthy and happy continuance of your relationship? If you aren’t sure, maybe you can ask; in the long run, I suspect most people prefer honesty and would rather have a real and meaningful conversation than a repetition of stock phrases. Failing that, simply make it clear, either in actions or in words, that you are aware of the situation and are standing by to assist; the worst thing you can do is leave someone feeling alone and isolated, because cancer–or whatever other tragedy–will inevitably engender those feelings in nearly everybody at some point or another.

Someone like me may never take you up on your offer to help out, no matter how much you wish they would. But I will tell you a secret. In these last few months, I have experienced some very long days and nights; I have had periods of feeling drained, pathetic, uncertain, pitiful, tired, and weak. Through all that, however, I have never felt abandoned or neglected. In those lowest moments, I didn’t grab my phone to call in the cavalry, but I always felt better for knowing that if I did, they would arrive in no time. Ultimately, that certainty is what has made all the difference, and is what has helped me climb back out of those depths, time and again.

There are infinite ways in which you can help someone and show you care and are aware of what they are going through. You can distract them from hardship by having a humorous conversation about something lighthearted; you can buy them a gift; you can compliment their appearance; you can quietly take care of little tasks before they have a chance to do them or stop you from doing them on your behalf. These are only some of the many lovely things that I have experienced since the lymphoma diagnosis. What all these things have in common is that the people who did them spared a few moments of their time to think about me and to show me they were doing so, and that–not the specific format of the expression itself–was what truly mattered. These people all took the time to be there, and that is what I will remember months and years from now when cancer is but a distant memory.

To come back to the theme I’d originally intended for this post, the only advice I can give about what to say or do after a loved one is diagnosed is to simply avoid doing nothing at all. (Clarification: Sometimes you may be engaged in an active sort of nothing, since you will be waiting in standby mode so that you can help if needed; this is different from a vacant sort of nothing, where you’ve failed to demonstrate or express your proximity should it be needed. Got it?)

Be there, be observant, be thoughtful, be your normal self, and let him/her be himself/herself.

Come to think of it, this is a pretty decent set of rules for life in general, isn’t it?