When I joined that unfortunate group, people with cancer, I began to encounter folks who had plenty to say about it. All of a sudden people become uninhibited. Everyone had a cancer story, and they wanted to tell it to me! I think it’s similar to when you’re pregnant and everyone has their birthing experience to share and they feel the right to pat your tummy too. It’s really quite odd.
I don’t know why people who had never spoken with me before, suddenly acquired the freedom. Maybe they thought their words would encourage me, but often they had the opposite effect.
I’ve had every sort of comment spoken to me. One woman told me it was my deodorant that caused breast cancer. She actually sent me some Tom’s deodorant all the way from California!
Several ‘thoughtful’ people let me know that it was some fault with my diet, and wouldn’t you know, they just happened to be selling the very nutrient of which I was deficient! How nifty! What a coincidence! (Did I mention I never asked them for any advice?)
Unsolicited advice is never good, especially with people facing cancer. (I realize that here I am giving unsolicited advice! But you clicked on my blog! =)
A lady at church came up one Sunday and told me, “Everyone I know gets cancer and dies. Everyone who has cancer that I pray for dies!” My bubble was saying, if this is your track record, don’t pray for me, don’t touch me, don’t talk to me! I was too timid and didn’t want to be rude but I wanted to say, “What exactly is your point?!” I finally had to take her hands off of me, to literally pull away from her and say “Well, thank you for that,” as I walked away. (No, I don’t know why she had her hands on me.)
Similarly, we got a phone call from a family member, “We’ve really been praying for Kris. You know, my good friend’s wife was going through this and we really prayed for her. She just died. But I want you to know we’ll keep praying for Kris . . . .” For real! For Real!
Some of the best advice I learned from my mother decades ago especially applies here: “If you don’t have anything positive to say, then don’t say anything at all.”
One cold and windy afternoon I was at Sam’s Club pumping gas into my car. I noticed a man looking at me. I looked away. (Sometimes I felt like a giant pink C – circa Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter – was sewn on my top for all to see. I usually tried to avoid most eye contact because I was living with my own little life-sentence.) Seeing movement in my periphery, I glanced up and noticed the man was coming towards me. Since I didn’t recognize him, I figured he was coming to the pump opposite me. He walked up to me, stuck out his hand and introduced himself. Then he asked how my tests came out! Now, I know he meant well, but he didn’t know me personally, and did he really think I wanted to discuss my private, personal test results with him? It felt very nonchalant, like “how ‘bout those Huskers!” I know he meant well, but it was horrible for me. I got in the car and cried.
The better thing to have done would have been to offer up a quiet prayer on my behalf without even bringing it to my attention, or smile and wave and leave it at that.
Another woman tried to ‘comfort’ my husband when she learned I’d had a double mastectomy, “At least she didn’t lose anything she needed,” she said. What?! What is that supposed to mean? I’m still shaking my head in disbelief! I have no words for that stupidity. Seriously.
Whether it was too much dairy in my diet or not enough vitamins, or there was some deep dark sin for which God was punishing me, I think I’ve just about heard it all.
Friends have told me they feel awkward when they’re around someone who has cancer. All of a sudden they don’t know what to say. They panic. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. They feel like there is a giant in the room and either they pretend it’s not there, or they say something, and it’s usually stupid. If this is how you feel, here are some thoughts to help you:
Remember they are still your friend. That hasn’t changed. The only thing different is that they are facing the toughest days of their life. They will need your patience, empathy (not pity), understanding and help. The best thing to do is to tell them privately, that you ache for them, that you’re praying (if you are) and that you’re just so, so sorry. If you aren’t that close, but you want them to know you care, send a card with those sentiments. If you feel and act awkward, they will feel like they have to comfort you. That’s not the outcome you want.
Resist the temptation to speculate. Believe me, the person facing cancer has done plenty of that already! You can bet they will discuss those things with their doctor. Trying to find a ‘reason’ may help you feel better, but it actually places blame on them. Like the people I knew who mentioned using deodorant or eating dairy, what those people communicated was, “You caused your cancer.” That’s terrible to do to someone. Sometimes there are no answers. Period. Leave it at that.
If you’re not sure what to say, then keep quiet. You don’t have to say anything at all. You’re not obligated to keep a conversation going. You don’t have to fill empty air. Quiet is really ok. Sometimes just being present is the best thing.
I received a letter from a woman when I learned I had cancer that I have treasured ever since. It was exactly the right thing to encourage me! In her card, this woman wrote that she’d heard I’d received some troubling news. She shared the story of her mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer as a 26-year-old, and she wanted me to know that her mother was now in her 80’s! She’d never gotten cancer again and she was living a full and healthy life! That was a story I needed to hear! That was a story I held onto! I still do! If you have a story that end’s well, then by all means, share it! Good news brings hope and hope promotes healing!
Five years later, when I learned I had a different kind of breast cancer, my friend Anne called sobbing. She said she’d just heard and was so sad, so sorry and she wanted me to know. We held our phones to our ears and cried together. Her tears were a gift.
Another friend called and said, “Kris, I am so sorry. I don’t know what else to say. I’m just so sorry.” Their words were medicine to me.
Often, during the months of my cancer treatment, I wouldn’t even answer my phone. I was home, but I was just too exhausted to have a conversation with someone, anyone. If this happens to you, don’t take it personally, don’t get irritated if you can’t make the connect even though you’ve tried several times. The person has cancer. They are sick. They don’t feel well. Their energy is sapped and their emotions are spent. “They got nuthin.” If you’re tempted to be offended, remind yourself, it isn’t about you! It’s about them! They feel like crap. Remind yourself of that. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly and choose patience. Give lots of grace, as much as you’d want to receive when you’re at your worst.
In closing, the best advice I can share is the simple phrase we all learn at a young age: think before you speak. Consider how it might make you feel to have those words spoken to you. Then, edit them or just smile and say nothing.