The Real World contestant, who is being treated for cancer, gives tips on how to help loved ones who are hurting

By Diem Brown
Updated September 20, 2012 02:30 PM
Courtesy Diem Brown

In her blog, Diem Brown, the Real World/Road Rules Challenge contestant recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer for the second time, opens up about her desire for a child and the ups and downs of cancer and fertility procedures

You know when you have that feeling of falling down a spiral of “mess-ups” and it feels like you keep letting people down?

I feel like, as patients, some of us fall into the pattern of loneliness, either by circumstance or by unintentional self-infliction. And right now I feel like I’ve irritated my loved ones who are trying to help me.

At times when you are in the midst of tests and/or treatments you become overwhelmed and you don’t get back to people trying to reach out and help you.

My advice for loved ones: keep reaching out, but don’t get offended if you don’t hear back. Know they are getting your thoughts and messages but maybe it’s a bad week and they don’t want to talk about any medical stuff.

It’s a funny cycle – and one that I know all too well. I’m not getting back to people or showing up to all events or dates with friends. My mind is elsewhere and sometimes, as much as I want to be present, my mind drifts off to an upcoming test, or side effects I’m experiencing, or incoming results. Then I fall into a shame cycle and feel awkward reaching out weeks later.

So if you’re a loved one who wants to share love and support, then keep reaching out, even if it’s months down the line. It doesn’t matter what the illness or tragedy is – whether it be cancer, a car accident, or someone who’s lost someone close to them – sending your thoughts and love is always uplifting.

My mom passed away many years ago. But I can remember when some of my college girlfriends would send me a note on Christmas or on my mom’s birthday or on my birthday to remind me that they were thinking of me. Tragedy happens in an instant but the effects are long lasting, so when friends recognize that, it makes the person affected not feel so alone.

Several of my girlfriends in L.A. all came together recently to make and send out the sweetest gift box to me in N.Y.C., filled with such thoughtful items as a picture book, pajamas, loose-fitting clothes to wear for treatments, “a snap jar” filled with sweet notes from everyone, a teddy bear to hide where the IV is inserted, and even my favorite candies!

I opened that box and immediately felt loved. I just felt pure love pouring out of that box! I was incredibly humbled by their thoughtfulness.

So now, being fully aware of how uplifting sweet gestures can be, I try to reciprocate. I make a mental note when someone loses a loved one that the pain peaks around holidays or birthdays, so sending that person a note or a potted plant lets them know I’m thinking of them even in the absence of speaking to them.

Just as sending someone a card mid-way through cancer treatment – or while recovering from a car accident – can perk up that person, there is no greater feeling than being on either end of those acts of kindness, whether receiving or giving.

How to Be Helpful to a Patient

Thinking of the situations that I have experienced personally or have heard from other patients about, I thought it might be cool to have a lil tip sheet for patients’ loved ones to refer to.

If you are a loved one of a patient and ask, “How can I help?” try this instead: Be the initiator. For example, ask your friend (aka “the patient”) when their first chemo treatment is and say, “I’m coming with you.” If you feel like your friend is having a dark day, then say, “I’m coming over with a romantic comedy and popcorn and we are just gonna veg out together.” Doing things like this are simple, yet mean so much.

Second, but probably one of the most important things to remember when trying to help a loved one through any medical condition or the loss of a loved one, is that your words hold so much power. In the past I have had people say to me, “Oh I know how you feel, my dog has cancer,” when trying to relate to my cancer diagnosis. Now I know the sentiment isn’t meant to irritate but honestly…

I think as loved ones we want to give comfort by “relating” to a patient’s aliments, but in reality patients don’t necessarily need or want you to relate. They just want to know you are there for them.

I think by trying to immediately relate, in actuality, you end up dismissing the patient or the person experiencing grief. Instead, I think saying something like “I can’t imagine what you re going through right now, but I’m here for you whenever you want to vent” is much more comforting. That keeps the focus on the person who is hurting and helps open up a dialogue later if they want to vent or let it all out.

Every patient is different, so patients let your friends and family know what type of support you need. Friends and family often want to help but don’t know how.

Giving love, sending prayers and notes of encouragement never go unnoticed, even if the recipient is silent and doesn’t immediately acknowledge the loving acts. Just know that their hearts are filled when they feel that others are thinking of them.

I know this blog is a little all over the place, but that’s where I am at the moment. I want to be as real as possible so other patients who are reading don’t feel guilty if they are out of sorts and also so loved ones of patients can get a glimpse into a patient’s mindset.

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