Hearing this refrain, “I’m fine, I’m fine, really, I’m fine” at the end of a telephone line from a dear family member who had cancer nearly drove me crazy. I knew that she wasn’t fine.
Reflecting back, I realize that I may have been asking the wrong question or saying the wrong things. It is tough to know what to say when someone you love is seriously ill with cancer. But thanks to cancer bloggers who have been venting, there is a clearer picture of the right and wrong things to say or do when your friend or loved one has cancer.
What not to say to someone with cancer: Here are a few “Don’ts”
Don’t Ask: ‘How Are You?’
‘How are you?’ –that ‘go-to’ polite question we are trained from birth to rely upon in social encounters–is exactly the wrong question to be asking. Of course, I asked it. Now I’ve learned that the answer “I’m fine, no really, I’m fine,” was my loved one’s trying to make me feel better.
As Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham related in a New York Times article on the subject, “I found myself consoling those who asked and then fighting the contagion of grief and fear.”
Don’t Say: Stay Positive or Keep Fighting
Emma Betts, a blogger with Stage 4 melanoma, explained why this statement bothered her. “Even though people mean well by saying these words, every time I hear them I feel that I am not trying hard enough or doing everything I can do to survive this disease. You don’t want to live the little time that you have feeling this way.”
Don’t Ask: What is your prognosis?
Curious though you may be, this is an inappropriate and extremely personal question. If the person wants to tell you, she will.
Don’t Say: If you are going to get cancer, that is the best kind to get
Or “at least you only have…” When someone is sick, treating their illness as less important than it is does not help them. You are not building anyone up by downplaying their condition.
Don’t ask: Did you smoke? Didn’t you use sunscreen?
In other words, blaming someone’s lifestyle is not supportive. There are many reasons that people get cancer, environmental exposures, genetic predispositions and just bad luck. Hinting that a person gets cancer because she didn’t take care of herself is wrong. It is a defensive mechanism to keep at bay the thought that cancer can happen to anybody; which sadly is the truth. Cancer can happen to anyone, people who eat fruits and vegetables, people who run marathons. This is not a time for blame.
But You Don’t Look Sick
As spoonies will attest, when this statement comes from a place of disbelief- where the sick person is being doubted- it is damaging.
Don’t talk about other people that you know with similar cancers
Even if you have a story in which your friend or relative has survived for twenty years after a cancer diagnosis, don’t try to make comparisons. Every cancer is different. Every experience is different.
Don’t say “It’s Only Hair”
Think about it. As blogger Stephanie Seban states, “Believe me! It’s not just about losing your hair, it’s about appearing to be sick. A bald head or thinning hair is a daily reminder of the battle you are up against. Every time you look in the mirror, you are reminded that you have cancer. All of the attention your baldness attracts, is a reminder that you have cancer.”
Try to keep your feelings of distress to yourself
Give your loved one the space to speak.
What Should You Say?
The words, “I’m sorry that you are going through this” and/ or “I don’t know what to say but I can listen” can mean a great deal to someone going through a cancer diagnosis. Open ended questions like “Do you want to tell me about your cancer and what you’re going through?” empowers the person with cancer and gives them the choice.
Instead of asking “is there anything I can do?” which puts the burden on your sick loved one, ask them what kind of food they can handle, say you are going to bring some and then follow up. Offer to take them to a doctor’s appointment and then do it.
One piece of advice that has come from cancer bloggers is, stay connected. Even if they cannot or do not have the energy to respond. Just let your friend know that you are thinking about them and care.
Finally, try to talk about something besides cancer. Dealing with cancer, day in and day out is exhausting.