I totally understand that many people just don’t know what to do
when someone in front of them says, “I have cancer.”
Last week I shared the well-intentioned and well-executed words and actions that so many people offered on behalf of my wife and me following her diagnosis of breast cancer. That post allowed me to share our gratitude and at the same time provide suggestions (that worked for us) for those who may not know what to say or do for a friend or family member facing a similar life-changing event.
This week, I shift perspective and take a look at some of the not-so well-executed words and actions. Though well-meaning, these ended up missing their mark. Again, like last week’s post, this feedback hopefully will provide useful information for those in similar situations.
Cancer.Net states that when a diagnosis is made public
Your friends and family members will likely want to help you, but they might not know what you need or how to ask you. Be direct and explicit about your needs, and try to avoid making assumptions about who will help and who will not. …. set boundaries … let them know exactly what is helpful and what is not….”
Along the way we learned to set boundaries and limits. I totally understand that many people don’t know what to do when someone in front of them says, “I have cancer.” It can be (and we found that it is) very scary to observers. They do not know what to say or do. After all, no one has handed them a user’s manual on how to support someone with that diagnosis.
I would like to offer a few examples of the heartfelt, yet ineffective, actions that Laurie and I experienced. So, in the category of “Thanks. You’re Not Helping!” (TYNH!) let me offer the following suggestions from our perspective. Consider them; accept them; discard them. Your choice depending on your situation.
- “It could be worse.” (TYNH!) These words are not helpful to someone who just got a life-threatening diagnosis. Yes, I guess, anything can be worse. But to the person with the diagnosis (and her partner), we really do not care about what could be worse. We care about our situation and story.
♥Better: This is not the time for comparatory suffering. Offer support. But do not denigrate the experience by lessening it. Allow the person to speak about the diagnosis if he or she desires.
- “I know just how you feel.” (TYNH!) No, you don’t! You or a family member may have gone through the exact same diagnosis. But you do not know what the person in front of you feels. When you insist that you do, you have denied that person’s story.
♥Better: If applicable, offer that you and/or someone very close to you have gone through this. And offer that you are there if and when the person would like to talk. Unless asked, this is not the time to go into depth about another person’s situation (see next item).
- “Let me tell you about my aunt [grandmother, mother, sister, neighbor….]. She had the same thing.” (TYNH!) This often appeared to be a defense mechanism by the people with whom we shared the news. They knew nothing else to say, so they talked about someone else with cancer. If you do this, you are now subjecting the patient in front of you with someone else’s cancer story. And, again, you have denied her story.
♥Better: Like the situation above, you could acknowledge that you have had some experience with this through your aunt [grandmother, mother, sister, neighbor….] and then leave it at that. No need (unless you are asked follow-up questions) to go deeper into someone else’s story. Practice empathy.
- “I need more specifics.” (TYNH!) No, you don’t! Unless you are a health care provider or have a legal connection, you only need what the patient and family chooses to tell you.
♥Better: Accept what has been offered. Yes, you may want more but allow the patient to have the dignity to control her own flow of information.
- “I posted on Facebook for you.” (TYNH!) Really? Some people have a need to be the first to share bad/sensational/OMG-type news. It’s not your story to release. Period.
♥Better: If you have not seen a post from the patient about this, it is not your place to let the world know that you are praying for so-and-so in this time of challenge. Remember boundaries and limits.
- “You should do…should not do….” (TYNH!) Unless the patient and/or family member directly asks you, “What do you think we should do?” please refrain from “shoulding” on them.
♥Better: You may feel you know best. Again, it’s not your situation. You can offer that you have information or past experiences that may be helpful. And leave it at that.
- “_____.” (TYNH!) Some folks are so uncomfortable with cancer, they just ignore that it exists. They say nothing. No acknowledgement.
♥Better: Let the person know that you are tongue tied and at a loss for words at the present. And that you do hold the very best in your heart even if you don’t know how to express it. Offer, if it is in your heart and capabilities, that you would be glad to help.
- “_____.” Part II . (TYNH!) Laurie had cancer. Not me. It was her body and her life on the line. She was the person who had toxins pumped into her for four months. Having said that, don’t forget the family/partner to the patient. They need support as well. To not acknowledge the family member is an injustice.
♥Better: I cannot tell you how grateful I was for the people who asked about me and how I was handling the situation. No, it was definitely not about me. But I traveled this journey. Why would you not ask about the family member/caregiver?
- “I know you said you don’t need me to do this but I am because I need to do it for myself.” (TYNH!) Totally understandable—but it does not help. If you ask to visit, make food, call or text and the patient or family demurs, except that boundary.
♥Better: This time, while it can be very hard on friends and extended family, is about the patient and her family. Remember, the patient is not there to give you therapy. Knowing that you care may be all the patient and family need at the current time. Be specific about what you can do…and then let the patient or family take it from there.
- “You need to focus.” (TYNH!) I was told that. Again, the intent was admirable, the execution poor. We were keenly focused—everyday. We had cancer, not dementia.
♥Better: If your friend appears to be at wits end or seems to be distracted, offer to listen. Gentle guidance may be needed. Telling someone to “focus” when you do not know the entire story comes across very judgmental and, frankly, demeaning.
We remain deeply indebted to those many, many friends who made this journey as smooth as possible. Their positive thoughts and love were nothing short of humbling. The foregoing in no way diminishes that. The ten suggestions above may help someone else avoid unintentional missteps in an already difficult period in a person’s life. These are from our perspective; maybe they won’t work in your situation. We offer them as options to consider. If you keep your heart open and remember not to deny the patient and family’s story or privacy you will be doing good. Thank you all for standing by and with us! -Laurie and Steve
Video recommendation for the week: A classic song done in a manner that shows how important it is to have somebody to stand by you. Enjoy!
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(c) 2016. Steve Piscitelli. All rights reserved.