By Cancer Hope Network volunteer and cancer survivor, Suzanne Prichard

Recently, a good friend whose sister is suffering from cancer asked me for advice: what insight do I have as a cancer survivor that she can use to help her sister? I think she felt a bit lost, unable to change places with her, will away her condition, ease her pain. If I could give her even a kernel of an idea, of something else – she could share that with her sister.

Her sister has a different type of cancer, at an apparently advanced stage. I have been in remission since the Spring of 2012. I have never met her sister, although I feel like I have through stories my friend has told me about their shared experiences, silly phrases, vacations, family stories and the tales of the close bond they share. I have three sisters myself, and I can only imagine how they felt when I was sick and suffering.

Do I understand her sister’s experience with cancer any more than a beloved sister who herself has always been cancer free? I really do not know. I suppose, the diagnosis, medical care and experience is something we share. I told my friend she was already doing everything right: talking to her, reaching out to her medical team, sharing care-giving with her niece, being there for her and even asking for my advice.

By asking for my insight, my friend was trying to understand better, so she could care more. None of us can really know what it is like to be anyone other than who we are. My cancer journey is a part of who I am, and a part of my understanding, but others have the experience of having a child with special needs, a brother with substance abuse problems or a spouse with mental illness. I believe we are all just trying our best, building upon our experiences, and fighting our own battles with the tools we’re given and the biography of our lives.

Cancer affects an entire family. Whatever issues exist, and all families have them…the stress of the diagnosis heightens them. In this situation, you can guarantee that everyone will be at his or her worst. In my story, every one of my family members did the best they could. They could not change places with me. They could “only imagine” what it was like to be me. But, in the end that was what also showed them at their best. To imagine what another person’s experience is like – to empathize – is the best we can possibly do. This is how we get better at doing the best we can.