How to Talk to a Loved One About Cancer

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In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re sharing a story that highlights the positivity and change that can arise from a cancer diagnosis.

When Jen Kraemer-Smith was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, she was working at a weekly magazine and pregnant with her third child. After she found out, all she wanted to do was to keep the news to herself and her immediate family. It felt difficult and uncomfortable to share the news, let alone ask for help. But as the months passed, she gradually came to realize that not talking about her feelings or her health ended up being a disservice to all of her family, friends, and the people who cared about her.

One of these important members in Kraemer-Smith’s support system was and still is Andrea Delbanco. Delbanco and Kraemer-Smith had been colleagues at the weekly magazine and friends for more than a decade. They made sure to celebrate life’s ups and downs together, from first homes to first pregnancies, but when Kraemer-Smith revealed her cancer diagnosis, Delbanco was uncertain how to respond to the news. She wanted to go beyond getting dinner for her or fundraising and wanted to support Kraemer-Smith in a more meaningful way.

When it came to subjects like pregnancy, Delbanco and Kraemer-Smith knew where to turn—there were books, online resources, and past experiences to draw from—but there didn’t seem to be any good starting points for cancer. There were more questions than answers, and it was uncharted territory to explore.

To navigate through the new experience of learning about cancer, Delbanco utilized her skills as an editor and journalist to come up with solutions to the lack of conversations she and Kraemer-Smith were experiencing. She interviewed Kraemer-Smith and researched more background information and together they launched The Cancer Conversation, a set of 40 cards covering four major talking points, which have since expanded to nine additional supplemental card packs. The main cards touch on areas such as “Common Concerns” and “Emotional Elements,” while additional cards focus more specifically on a variety of issues such as “Hair Loss,” “Advanced-Stage Planning,” and “Cards for the Caregiver.” The cards all feature questions and suggestions in an easy-to-read format and they’re designed to be a friendly entry point and an easy and welcoming approach to starting conversations that might seem challenging, off-limits, or scary between anyone struggling with cancer and their loved ones.

For Kraemer-Smith, working on The Cancer Conversation has helped her understand family members better, embrace friendship, and unexpectedly, help others as well. The feedback from the cancer community has been very positive and doctors have said that the cards are useful and concrete tools they can offer to their patients. Kraemer-Smith added, “There’s not a lot of lemonade to be made from cancer but [The Cancer Conversation] is a way to tackle the communication problem. My children can look back and can say mom and her friend were looking to help.”

To learn more about and purchase The Cancer Conversation, visit www.thecancerconversation.com.