When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer it’s sometimes difficult to find the right words or to be sure that you are doing the appropriate things. In this blog post I’ve chosen to address some of the most common mistakes and I make specific suggestions about how you can communicate better with someone who is going through a cancer journey.
Always permit a cancer patient to control how much medical information he or she wishes to share with you.
Remember that some patients are more private than others, so don’t pry—only discuss these matters if the patient chooses to bring them up. As a general rule don’t ask detailed questions about the diagnosis or treatment plan. Examples of inappropriate questions might include: “How many chemo sessions do you have?” and “What kind of surgery does your oncologist recommend?” Of course caregivers and close family members are almost always privy to this information. If you are in such a position, I strongly advise you not to divulge intimate details about the condition of your husband, wife, adult son or adult daughter without their specific consent. For instance, as a caregiver you probably have friends or your own support group and you may need to take some time off work. Still, it’s almost never necessary or appropriate to inform your best friend or your boss of exactly how much weight your loved one has lost or the name of the chemotherapy drugs they’ve been prescribed!
Try not to make your offers of assistance too vague.
“Can I do anything to help you?” Your overall intentions for asking a cancer patient this question are likely noble and your heart is in the right place. However, the phrasing of this question is frequently too vague or broad. The person undergoing cancer treatment is probably too overwhelmed to think of something specific, furthermore they don’t want to feel like a burden. Instead, it’s recommended that you ask if you can perform some task in particular for the person. “May I pick up some groceries for you?” or “I’d like to make you dinner tomorrow night.” are good examples of things you might want to say. Even scheduling routine appointments is difficult for an individual facing surgery or chemotherapy, so it might also be fitting to take the initiative by offering to make some telephone calls or send some e-mail messages.
Don’t give a cancer patient health advice, especially if you have never had cancer.
“Healthy people should never give cancer patients health advice,” physician and cancer survivor, Nikhil Joshi, argued in a recent Globe and Mail interview. “There’s nothing worse than being sick and getting advice from the healthy, because it’s almost like insinuating you did something to make this happen to you,” he said. I firmly agree with Joshi’s statement. It may be true in some cases that our lifestyle or health care choices increase the odds of getting cancer or contribute to cancer progression. However, if you cause someone with cancer to absorb blame and feel shame it will almost certainly make matters worse. Shame and guilt are unnecessary burdens to carry. From everything that’s known about the emotions and health, acceptance and forgiveness are what we need to cultivate and enhance healing, not self-condemnation and self-blame.
Remember every cancer journey is unique physically, psychologically and spiritually.
My situation may remind you of someone else, but telling me a story about a family member or friend who has or had cancer is simply irrelevant, and it’s especially a bad idea if it’s a fatal story. Modern medicine has essentially proven that everyone’s cancer experience is unique, even individuals with the same type, stage and grade of cancer can have radically different outcomes. Telling me about your aunt Lisa’s current third round of chemo for colon cancer won’t help me to process my diagnosis or make decisions about my own cancer treatment.
Don’t send a cancer patient newspaper articles about cancer that you’ve read or give them a basket with holistic cancer remedies in it.
If I want information regarding cancer or cancer treatment, I’ll ask for it. In the months following my cancer diagnosis I was inundated with information and advice from a medical team. Consequently, the articles from newspapers, magazines or online publications that I received were annoying. For the most part these pieces were irrelevant and unnecessary. When some acquaintances sent me ginger and dandelion root, two common homeopathic therapies for cancer, I didn’t bother to explain to them that these items are specifically mentioned on a list oncologists give to their patients. Ginger and dandelion root do not combine well with many traditional chemotherapy drugs, and therefore patients should refrain from using them during treatment.
Don’t tell someone with cancer that everything will be the same again or that everything will workout fine.
Cancer can be a terrifying experience and a diagnosis of this disease is usually a turning point that will alter a person’s life forever. I hate when people try to deny this fact or minimize it by giving me false reassurance. The truth is I don’t know I’m going to be fine, you don’t know I’m going to be fine, even my oncologist doesn’t know I’m going to be fine. Instead, I feel comforted when people use phrases like “I believe in you.” or “I’m pulling for you.”