Thursday, May 22, 2008

How to React

Question from a blog reader: "How should people react when they find out that a friend has cancer?"

I don't think there's any standard one-size-fits-all response because every cancer patient is different. I've had all sorts of reactions: Bursting into tears, stunned silence, even a game of Twenty Questions (How did you find out? Is it in the early stages? Can it be treated? Is there a history of cancer in your family?)

The most common reaction seems to be, "I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?" I think every cancer patient would appreciate these thoughts. If you don't know what to say beyond that, just be there to listen. Tell them, "I don't know what to say. I'm afraid of saying the wrong thing."

If you think you've said the wrong thing, don't beat yourself up about it. I've had cancer for over two years now and even I didn't know what to say when my friend told me that her daughter had just been diagnosed. I choked up, teared up, and mumbled useless things.

I think just letting the person know you care and that you'd like to help in some way is enough.

That said, here are some things you should try to avoid when talking to a cancer patient:

1) Don't tell them stories about people you know who've had cancer and died.
2) Don't tell them about miracle cures and say they must try them.
3) Don't tell them God will heal them. God didn't promise he's going to heal anyone.
4) Don't accuse them of giving up if they don't try whatever crazy concoctions or exotic alternative therapies you've discovered on the Internet.

Keep in mind that cancer patients go through phases. When I was first diagnosed, I was ticked off by people referring to chemotherapy as "toxic poison". I didn't want to hear that the drugs they were putting into my body were toxic and poisonous. But now I realize I was being overly sensitive. Chemo is toxic. It is poisonous. But I wouldn't say that to a newly diagnosed cancer patient. It sounds too scary.

If someone had asked me how long I had to live just after I was diagnosed, I might have been offended. Now, I have no problem with that question. But I think I'm an exception. Most cancer patients would find that question offensive, no matter when you asked them.

Some people just don't want to talk about their cancer. Some want to talk about it all the time. Take your cue from them. If you're not sure, ask them, "Do you want to talk about it, or would you rather talk about something else?"

Imagine yourself as a cancer patient. What would you want people to say and do? That's usually a good guide in any situation.


Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that there isn't any standard answer. Besides going through phases, a cancer patient can also have mood swings.

One certainly should not impose their views on a cancer patient. You do not automatically know better and become stronger than the person who has cancer.

I think being sincere goes a long
way. Even if you have said the wrong thing, the cancer patient can sense it because they too do not always know what to say.


Anonymous said...


I have noticed that when I click the "Publish this comment" button under the Preview section, the message, "Your blog has been saved....." does not appear at the top of the page. The message appears only when I click the button where the message is first entered.

I had thought that my comments were rejected but I think you may not have received them at all.


Shin said...

Dear MAM,

I'm not quite sure what you meant, but maybe my screen shows something different from yours, since I'm on a Mac and not a PC?

FYI - When you post a comment on my blog, it will not immediately appear on the site. Your comment will be sent to my e-mail Inbox. If I publish it, your comment appears on the site. If I reject it, your comment does not appear on the site.

I try to check my e-mail several times a day but I may not get to your comment right away, so it might take some time before your comment appears on the site.

I hope this clarifies things a bit.

Thanks for your comments and questions. I think they're quite helpful to me and other readers of this blog.

Anonymous said...

I think we have a mutual friend in the one whsoe daughter has just been diagnosed with leukemia. I had coffee with her this morning and coincidentally we were talking about things people say when your child is diagnosed with a life threatening medical condition......although my child doesn't have cancer it is as R said, same same but different.
Anyway, we came up with some classics that we have both heard.........

You have been given this as you are strong enough to deal with it.

It has happened for a reason.

Gosh, you are coping so well.....I would be devastated if it happened to me.

We've decided we should write a book about the things people say!

Big hugs my lovely

lianain said...

Hi Shin,
Thanks for answering my question. I guess the bottomline is to just let the friend know that you're there and you care. Sometimes it's tough knowing where to draw the line between being helpful and being a nuisance.

Am away at the moment. Won't get to see you on Sunday. Look forward to hearing your thoughts about the film though.


ALI KATI said...

Was thinking about this again today, as I encountered another blog that asked a similar question.

I think your post has pretty much covered all bases.

The only thing I'd add is that - give the cancer patient a lot of space to run through their range of thoughts and emotions if they do choose to share them. Without judgement or pity, hopefully. People sometimes need to go through the bad bits before they get out. Being judged or pitied for being "less than strong or inspiring" is an extra burden they don't need.