"be a bit sweary" and other tips for supporting a mate with cancer
Emily Somers kicked cancer’s arse twice. Strangely enough, it was the social interactions during her recovery that were sometimes the trickiest to deal with.
Dancing around tough subjects is a pretty human tendency. And as a two-time cancer survivor, Emily Somers knows exactly what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that social awkwardness. This frankie Good Stuff Award winner, founder of scarf store Bravery Co. and cancer-kickin’ champ is all for ditching the fluff and being straight when it comes to this nasty disease. So, if you’ve ever been lost for words or are unsure how to help someone going through cancer, keep scrolling.
Half of having cancer was being worried that other people were overly worried about me. The first time I got diagnosed, I told my friends face-to-face and that was super-hard. I found that facebook really helped – it was a good way for me to update my outer circle of friends because it’s such a crap thing to say "Hi, I have cancer" to someone you only run into every six months or so. When I would bump into someone who didn’t know, they’d look at me and realise something wasn’t right, and then I’d go full speed into making sure they felt OK, like "Yeah, I have cancer but don’t worry because it’s going to be great," while they looked like they were about to cry.
Just talk about it and acknowledge that it’s shit. People were sometimes awkward and would dance around the topic. Or they’d find interesting ways to brush over it like "You’re doing well on your journey". I wasn’t going on an overseas trip – I had cancer! I think just admitting that cancer is shit was nice for me. Saying something like "I can’t believe this is happening, this is really crap" is totally fine. Be real and a bit sweary about it.
Gifts can be a bit tricky. Interestingly enough, before I launched Bravery scarves, I initially wanted to make ‘Bravery Boxes’ – care packages with nice natural lotions and skincare stuff. I thought about doing it after receiving so many lovely presents that just weren’t quite right. Everyone wanted to help, so they got me a million flowers. Lovely as they are, flowers just die, and then you’re surrounded by dead flowers, which is depressing. I also received lots of sugary things, but during my cancer, I was really conscious of all the chemicals I was putting into my body and I didn’t need refined sugars.
Distractions are the best. I had such an amazing group of friends who would organise a roster to come and spend time with me. They’d take a day off to come and do regular things like have brunch, go for a walk, or go get a massage. Even when friends just sent me silly youtube videos, music, an emoji, or nice pictures it was really nice.
Forced help was necessary. I had great people telling me to just get in touch if I ever needed help. But I’m not the kind of person to reach out unless I’m in dire straits, and I think a lot of people are similar. So even if I was exhausted from the day, I didn’t think it would be a good enough excuse to ask for help. But I’d have friends who were more forceful and say "I AM dropping off a lasagne to your house". Going to the supermarket was both physically and mentally draining, with everyone giving you pity stares, so having people drop stuff off at my house was fantastic.
Reading "No need to reply" was so helpful. I received so many lovely messages wishing me well, but it got to the point where there were so many that I would wake up stressed out. Looking at a screen was so hard when I was sick. But I didn’t want to leave people hanging because it’s scary if someone has cancer and doesn’t reply one day. I had one friend who wrote me a message with "You don’t need to reply" at the end. It meant so much to me to hear that!
Life after cancer is really weird. Keep supporting your friends after they’ve gone through cancer. People don’t talk about how weird the aftermath is – your entire perspective is changed, you’re not sure if you should get a job or do something else. You’ve gone through this period where your life was run by appointments and tests and then afterwards, people are like, "Great! You’re all cured!" as if you never had cancer. This is a time when you really need your friends to rally around you.
Since winning the Good Stuff Award last year, we’ve printed our first range of designer headscarves and gotten kickass illustrators like Beci Orpin, Luci Everett and Marylou Faure on board. I’m developing a range of turban hats made from stretch jersey too. Things are moving so fast! We also donated 200 headscarfs to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and organised a pamper day there, so I’d love to continue doing more of those in future.