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NERADINE TISAJ

Neradine was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer five years ago; she has been cancer-free since.

"It's surprising how people react to cancer; they still whisper the word. There are those who act like you're contagious and avoid you. A woman at work stopped talking to me. Others want to know every single detail. I remember dancing at a party when a woman came up to me to ask how I found my lump.

I wanted to say, 'I'm at a party, dancing!'

You feel like it's your role to give people information, but it becomes exhausting.

Most people say things like, 'Just stay positive, you'll be fine!' That's annoying, because your whole life has been turned around and staying positive is not enough. Or they'll say, 'Breast cancer is the best kind of cancer you can get.' But it's also a cancer a lot of people die from. Friends would call me and weep, and I'd have to comfort them!

I got people looking down and glancing at my breasts a lot. That was really awkward. A guy I'd dated literally stopped eating his meal and bolted out of the restaurant when I told him I had cancer. A week later, he asked me to sponsor him for a cancer charity marathon he was running. People ask you to donate money for cancer all the time, which is ironic, because having cancer is very expensive!

People spouted a lot of theories. Some said, 'You probably got it because you were breastfed for only three months.' Many said, 'It's because you work too hard.' Some said, 'It could be worse. At least you don't have children.' That made me feel undervalued.

I thought, 'My life is just as important, even if I don't have children!' Plus, pointing to the fact I didn't have kids made me more depressed.

On the plus side, a TV writer I worked with sent me a DVD boxed set of Sex and the City. Another friend loaded up my iPod with songs. Thoughtful gifts - even if just a card - were nice. Practical things, like having people drive me around, were good.

A TV journalist who I didn't know had had breast cancer told me about her experience, and that was helpful. We talked about the humorous side of things. There isn't enough humour in cancer; people are still so serious. You're faced with a life-and-death situation, yet you find yourself in hospital waiting rooms wearing gowns with your bum hanging out. You have to find some humour in it.

People who curse and say, 'That's crap, that's terrible' - that's comforting. You want acknowledgement it's a horrific experience, rather than a fake cheerleader attitude.

The best thing someone could say to me was, 'You'll get through this, you're stronger than you think.' That's better than, 'You'll be fine,' because they don't know that. It's more about people believing in your strength."

CHRIS NOLAN

Chris is a mother of five children, including Luke, who suicided eight years ago at the age of 21.

"Family and close friends surrounded us and cushioned us, did things with us and for us. One thing that sustains me is when people talk about what Luke meant to them. It's special to spend time with his friends, because it's like he's alive again. It gives you a lift inside.

What's helpful is people being prepared to listen and be with you. After Luke died, my sisters would ring and say, 'Do you want a walk today?' They would turn up each day, and we'd walk and have coffee. It gave me a reason to get dressed. It was a metaphor, too: they were walking the journey with me.

If you're not sure what to say, then express that: 'I don't know what to say.' Don't jump in with something. If you do think you've said the wrong thing, say that, too. 'I'm so sorry' is such a simple but helpful line.

Grieving, for suicide-bereaved people, is different from other grief. People who have lost someone to suicide are not just grieving for the person they lost; they lose part of themselves, too. It's the total shattering of who you are - who you are as a mother, in my case. It's so complex and multi-layered; you can't imagine it until you're in it.

People don't understand it, but the thing to remember is that the person who's going through it doesn't understand it, either.

For the people in it, there's an intensity and relentlessness of guilt and searching for the why, which doesn't go away. It's best to say, 'I don't understand what happened.'

You don't want platitudes like 'They're at peace now.' And one of the least helpful things is when people criticise the person who died. It's not what you want to hear.

You want happy memories.

The Christmas after Luke died, we got cards from families telling us all the great things that had happened in their year, with nothing said about Luke, and those were hard to read. But on the other hand, one of Luke's friends' mothers sent a card, and she wrote, 'Thinking of you all as you prepare for your first Christmas without Lukey. We hope that his love of family, great sense of fun and cheeky smile help in making a happy time for you.'

I just thought, 'How gorgeous is that?'

Anything meaningful that people did was good and made a difference. People brought photos. Close friends gave us an angel statue, while others brought roses. The words people wrote in their cards, they don't realise how much it means. People shouldn't underestimate the value of the words they write.

Saying or doing nothing is the worst thing you can do. It's never too late to make

contact. If someone wrote to us now, seven years later, it's not like it would open up

old wounds. This is our life."

MIFFY COADY

Miffy underwent seven years of IVF before giving birth to son Jack in 2011.

"People who didn't know us very well but knew we were married would ask, 'So when are you going to have a family?' or 'You guys have been married for years now. What's going on?' Those questions are quite insensitive. But even people close to us would ask, 'Are you going to adopt/get a surrogate/get a donor? Are you going to finish work/go on a holiday?' Some people think there are very easy answers to these questions.

One thing that'd really upset me was when people said, 'What's meant to be will be.'

I thought, 'What is meant to be? That I may never be a mum? I may be childless forever?'

I didn't like it when people said, 'It will definitely work out for you guys,' or 'You were born to be parents.' I'd think, 'Well, are we? Then why are we going through what we're going through?' It's not good when people try to put a positive spin on things. It makes light of the situation.

For some people, asking about IVF was a foreign language, and they just had no idea what to ask or how to ask it. There were some rippers. I remember sitting down at a fairly intimate lunch for 20 people, and someone said to me, 'Your husband mentioned you were taking herbs from Africa every single night. Are you still taking those?' The whole room went completely silent and I said, 'I'm not really open to talking about what sort of fertility treatment I'm going through right now, particularly in front of 20 people over lunch when a few people have had a couple of drinks and may ask some really insensitive questions.'

You just want people to be there for you. You want them to make you a cup of tea, or if you're busy with work and going through treatment, to drop over a meal to make your life a bit easier.

The nicest thing someone ever said to me was, 'You've had a really tough time, you have handled your challenge incredibly well. I am thinking of you.' It was a compliment, it was supportive, it acknowledged the issue. It wasn't insensitive. That was refreshing." 

Photography by Getty Images; Marina Oliphant