As you now know, my father was diagnosed with Cancer earlier this year. Over these past 8 months, it has been a battle that too many people have become familiar with. My mother-in-law lost her fight the day after Dad’s surgery and within the past three years we’ve also lost an uncle and a cousin.
Suffice it to say, we have A LOT of experience on what is helpful and what is not when it comes to support. I consider it my service to humanity to offer the following:
10 THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER SAY TO SOMEONE WITH CANCER, OR THEIR FAMILY
1. “Don’t do the surgery. They’ll open you up and it will spread!” – I’m pretty sure that’s not how Cancer spreads, and your paranoia will only incite further paranoia. How is that helpful?
2. “There’s no point in doing the Chemo/Radiation/treatment.” I’d love to see your credentials in the medical field, or anything other than hearsay, because, again, putting the Fear of God in someone who is already stressed, isn’t really a great idea. The suggestion is that treatment is in vain, that the Cancer will return anyway. How is this productive? Millions of people beat Cancer every year. Don’t you want this person to be one of those people?
3. “Have you heard of the Broccoli/Sunshine/Herbal treatment?” You know what, just see Number 2…..
4. “My mother/father/uncle/aunt/son/daughter/dog/mailman had that kind of Cancer and two weeks after they saw the doctor, they were gone.” What exactly are you trying to accomplish with a terrifying statement like that? Cancer isn’t scary enough, you need to worry them that they have less time than they think they do?? I mean, come on.
5. “Jane Doe is suffering from Cancer.” My issue with this is the word “suffering“. When you are told to be strong, fight, find the courage and stay positive, the word “suffering” is one of the most damaging words you could utter. Try, “Jane Doe has been diagnosed with Cancer.” or even, “Jane Doe is battling Cancer.” So much more empowering, don’t you think?
6. “You look so GOOD!” I have yet to see someone battling Cancer who actually looks “good”. If anything, you make the individual self conscious and the internal conversation is something like this….
“Dear God, they think I look good when I look like THIS? I looked good when I had my hair, my eye lashes, my appetite, 40lbs more. I look like shit and now I feel even WORSE.”
7. “Oh my, you don’t look so good today!” It’s better to say nothing at all than to make a statement about personal appearance. This is someone who is walking through Hell for their life – are they supposed to have a “good” day? I mean, really…..
8. “Oh you poor dear!” This gem is usually reserved for family members – and when its the kids, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. Try “I bet you are a great help for your Poppa!” or “I will keep all of you in my thoughts and prayers.” Conveys the same intent without the implication of hollow sympathy.
9. “What can I do to help?” I bet you don’t see the issue with this one, do ya? The problem is that the person you are asking this of has a tornado of stress, drama and information swirling in their heads. They are grateful to remember to bathe, never mind make a To Do list. You are asking them to sort through their upside down life and come up with a custom list of tasks you would be suited to do. Why not say, “Can I help drive?” “May I drop off a casserole?” “Can I cut your grass?” These are specific tasks that the care giver or patient can look at and say “yes” or “no” rather than generate a task to assign you. Don’t be offended if they don’t agree to your suggestions. You have opened the door with a genuine offer, and in a still moment, when they have collected their thoughts, they may remember your kind offer. Then your phone may ring.
10. “You better get checked out!” While this comment is likely to be well intended, it’s usually unnecessary and if anything, causes more anxiety. When my mother-in-law was ailing, the last thing her sons needed was to be reminded that they might face the same fate. Don’t get me wrong, they were more than aware that the Cancers she battled can be passed genetically, but they didn’t need that stress adding to the concern they already had for her, and their father.
In conclusion, while many people think they are showing concern and empathy by asking these questions, it’s a case of the void between what is being said, and what is being heard. Remember that the best way to show your interest and support is to ask simple, short questions, void of overt emotion. Perhaps you’ll catch them in a moment where they will want to share their thoughts and feelings. They aren’t looking for answers. They don’t expect you to have a solution. The fact is, their reality is overwhelming in that moment, and they need to release the backlog.
Be an ear. Not a mouth.