“Dave” is a 72-year-old man who recently found out that his friend “Carl” has colon cancer. Carl had surgery and ended up with a colostomy. His prognosis was not very good. Dave went to see him in the hospital. Carl didn’t look so good, but Dave wasn’t about to tell him that. “You look great,” Dave said. Carl smiled wanly. Fortunately, there was a game on the television. Dave and Carl watched it as their wives chatted about one thing and another. After about 15 minutes, Dave just had to get out of there. Later, in the car, his wife asked him why he wanted to leave so abruptly. Dave’s answer was a very common one given when people are interacting with individuals who have cancer, “I just didn’t know what to say.”
Why don’t people know what to say when someone has cancer? There are a number of reasons, but they can be summed up in one word: fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing, too much, or not enough; fear of the person’s illness, of how your relationship with the person will change, of your feelings about the person’s illness; or fears of death, and of the unknown. While people are given a treatment course and a prognosis, those are not written in stone; complications may develop and plans may need to change.
How do we move beyond fear? We need to put the other person’s needs ahead of our own and ask ourselves what they need from us rather than what makes us the most comfortable. For example, when Dave went to visit Carl in the hospital, who was supposed to be supporting whom? It is there, in that space, where we aren’t thinking of ourselves, but doing for others, even though it is very challenging for us and even though part of us would rather be doing something much easier, that we experience growth.
Things to Be Aware of
- How to react: This starts with how you look at someone with cancer. People can see in your initial, fleeting facial expression a look of horror or shock. Try to steel yourself ahead of time. You may see someone who is physically disfigured, bald, very thin, or has discolored skin. If you walk in and tell them they look great, do you think that will be helpful? How about instead, “I’m so glad to see you,” or “You still have the same beautiful smile,” or “ Your eyes still sparkle,” something specific that is positive yet truthful.
- What to say: Next, you must be comfortable with sitting in silence. If you go to see someone who is going through cancer treatment, most likely they are experiencing some degree of fatigue. This means they are not looking for a visitor who is going to talk non-stop because they are uncomfortable with silence. Non-stop talking is exhausting to listen to! This doesn’t mean not talking at all, but rather it means letting them talk, letting them lead the conversation and asking them questions about what they’ve brought up. This is not your opportunity to have them tell you the entire story of their illness and treatment as they have had to do with countless other visitors who think it is their business as well.
- Planed visits: It is important to keep visits short and to call ahead to make sure it is okay to stop by. People in treatment have good days and bad days. There can be great variation from one day to the next without predictability. Plans made ahead of time may need to be cancelled at the last minute because the person doesn’t feel well on the day of the event. You need to know this is not about you and not be offended by it.
- No scents: People undergoing chemotherapy are very sensitive to smells and easily nauseated. Do not wear any perfume or cologne when visiting them.
Things to Avoid Saying
- Talking in platitudes, such as, “Don’t worry, I’m sure it will be fine.” “It can’t be that bad.” Do you have medical information specific to this person to back this up? If not, you have no business saying that, especially if the person has been told otherwise.
- Dismissing the person’s feelings: “Don’t be sad.” “Being mad won’t help anything.” Everyone is entitled to their own feelings, even if you are uncomfortable with them.
- Telling them about other people you know who have cancer: They are dealing with their own illness right now and don’t need to hear about your Aunt Rita’s breast cancer and how much she vomited when she had chemo.
- Telling them about other people you know who had cancer and died: They are struggling with everything they have and hoping for survival and the last thing they need to hear is that someone with their exact illness didn’t make it.
- Be very careful invoking God, even with those whose belief system support the concept: “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle,” “God has a plan for you.” Even some people who are Christian are offended by statements like this when they are ill. They may be confused or angry with God and statements like this may cause them to feel upset or guilty.
In closing, people with cancer need to know that their friends and loved ones are still there for them. Sadly, they find out who their true friends are as they go through treatment. Some friends visit less, then call less, then just drop out of sight. Those people miss a profound opportunity to share and grow in ways they can’t even imagine.
© Copyright 2011 by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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