Margaret Feinberg (www.margaretfeinberg.com) is the author of several books, including Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears. (It also comes in a Bible study format.) She writes here about the ill-advised things people have said to her as she has been battling cancer:
1. “I understand exactly what you’re going through.”
Even if you’ve battled cancer, no two fights are the same. The treatment plans differ, the bodily responses differ, the chemotherapy differs in types, amounts, and strengths. Even if you’ve been on a parallel journey, no cancer road is the same.
2. “My dog had cancer, too.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard sad stories of pets with cancer. I’m sorry for your animals. Really, I am. But please don’t try to connect through Fefe or Foofoo’s diagnosis.
Whenever someone faces adversity, people toss this well-meaning offer around like confetti. But it often proves to be a false promise. Your “anything” probably doesn’t include taking someone’s five kids for three weekends in a row, driving to chemotherapy appointments that last 12 hours every week, or paying off the latest $12,000 medical bill.
It’s better to simply ask, “What can I do to help?” That way you can decide if it’s something you can or cannot do. Or, offer a few manageable suggestions: a few hours of house cleaning; mowing the lawn; an afternoon of babysitting; a gift card to their favorite grocery store.
4. “The first moment my momma saw you she said, ‘There’s something wrong with her.’”
Sorry, no sticky stars for recognizing that someone has cancer. Noticing us isn’t like playing “Where’s Waldo?” Many of us try to hide the marks and scars of cancer as best we can.
5. “Oh, my aunt had that. She died.”
Mentioning that you have cancer has a way of causing all the dead relative stories to surface. You probably know people who died of cancer. Remember that we’re trying our hardest not to be among them.
6. “My friend had the same cancer and she’s fine.”
Cancer isn’t one disease, and it isn’t just several categories of disease. Cancer represents thousands upon thousands of diseases. Each type of cancer has various subtypes with more subtypes being discovered each year.
Also, a person’s age, health history, and immune system affect how the human body responds to treatment. Even if two people’s cancers share the same name, the same staging, and the same location, the treatment plan and odds of survival can be extremely different. One person can skate through treatment, while the next may be tortured and in the fight of their life. Never assume two cancers are the same.
7. “Did you try lavender oil, that I-can’t-remember-the-name Chinese plant compound, or those coffee enemas known to cure cancer?”
In their longing to help, friends and loved ones often suggest unproven alternative care, some of which can undermine treatment or prove dangerous. They mean well, but it can be hard to listen to someone without medical degrees prescribe off-the-wall, downright odd and even dangerous treatment plans.
8. “Been there, done that.”
“Been there, done that!” is appropriate for activities like visiting Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon, but nothing about great adversity, pain, suffering, or loss should be touted as, “Been there, done that!” The expression is dismissive, hurtful, and unhelpful. Christ never looked at anyone and said, “Been there, done that.” He chose the way of compassion and entered into people’s suffering.
The better response: “I (or someone I loved) faced a similar challenge, and I’m so sorry. Let me know if there are any specific ways I can support you during this time.”
9. “You look better than the last time I saw you.”
Though intended to be encouraging, what the person undergoing treatment hears is, “You looked awful the last time saw you.” Our bodies are going through so much change with surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, and a laundry list of medications. Resist the urge to assess our physical appearance.
My husband, Leif, and I were warned that people would disappear from our lives. After the initial flood of responses, we were tempted to think, “That’s not true!” Then, silence arrived. The warning proved true. I think of names and faces of those I’ve known, loved, and even worked with for many years who have never said a word. I know they know. They know I know. Yet all I heard was silence.
Seven months into treatment, I received a call from a friend who apologized for being busy and distracted and not reaching out. After I hung up the phone, I wept.
The gift of your presence is one of the most powerful things you’ll ever give someone facing cancer or any kind of adversity. We aren’t looking for pat answers, clichés, or dismissive, false promises like, “You’ll be fine.” Rather, we need you to be present in our lives. To laugh. To love. To say the following seven magic words:
“I’m thinking of you and praying for you.”
Those never grow old. No matter how many times you text or write them in a card. Those words communicate that you’re with the person in the midst of their storm. Those words can bring healing and hope and encouragement.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.