Wednesday, April 04, 2007

April 4, 2007 - Things Not To Say To a Cancer Patient

I discovered a new cancer blog the other day (new to me, anyway). On it, I found a list of things not to say to a cancer patient. The author of the blog, a lung and brain cancer survivor named Tom Clarke, compiled the list by recalling actual comments made to him or his wife, by well-meaning but clueless people (it’s from his October 3, 2006 posting). Tom’s not shy about revealing exactly what he thinks of such comments. I’ve edited his remarks for language, since Tom’s jargon is a bit too, er, colorful for this blog:

1. "It's God's Will," or its close cousin "everything happens for a reason." These seem to be favorites amongst the holy roller crowd. Response: Did you ever consider that God missed and tagged the wrong [bleeping] guy? Is that so inconceivable with five billion people roaming the planet?...

2. "You have to take it one day at a time." I decided to take it three days at a time, thank you very much, you dope addled AA/NA freak.

3. "God never gives you more than you can handle." Oh yeah, why are there so many suicides then? Also see #1 above.

4. "My ___________ (mom, sister, grandparent, friend, etc.) had ____________ cancer and he/she decided to undergo radiation/chemo and is just fine now." Well, that solves it. I guess I'll just depend on your mom's (sister's, etc.) judgment on what I should do for my more serious and completely different cancer...

5. Offers to help. Don't make them unless you intend to follow through. I actually had one friend who called me about 45 minutes before I was scheduled for an oncologist appointment (which he had agreed to take me to 2 weeks earlier) and asked me to reschedule the appointment because he was busy at work. "Uh, yeah, I'll get right on that. It's not like time is of the essence or anything." Offer to do what you can, get me out of the house for a lunch or a beer, but don't offer to do things (like mow my lawn, for another example) if you're not going to follow through. It makes more work for me and my family than had you not offered in the first place.

6. "You don't look like you have cancer." There's a special circle of Hell for these people (and yet you know that they have never heard of, much less read Dante's Inferno). What exactly am I supposed to look like? The less offensive version of this is "you look good."... Ask how I'm feeling first, and then comment if the situation warrants it.

7 . "Come on down." Well, people don't really say this, but I swear every waiting room in America has that [bleeping] The Price Is Right blaring at about 120 decibels even though no one is watching it...

So, now that Tom’s told us what he thinks you shouldn’t say to a cancer patient, what do you say? (Blog readers, want to weigh in on this? Click on the “Comments” link below, and let us know what you’ve found helpful.)

I don’t agree with him on all of these. I don’t have the same reaction, for example, to “You’re looking good.” That’s one I seem to get a lot, as I’m greeting people at the church door. (I suppose it’s a natural thing for people to say, after they’ve just spent an hour or so looking at me, and remembering how I used to look when I had no hair.)

I guess I’d have two suggestions – not so much specific things to say, but more a style of how to say them...

First, don’t concentrate on what you ought to say. That’s where pious platitudes come from, like “Just take it one day at a time,” or “God never gives us more than we can handle.” These may work for you, but they may not be what the person with cancer needs to hear.

Second, speak from the heart. To a newly diagnosed person, even a simple “I’m so sorry” means a great deal.

Third, just be there. Woody Allen said 80% of life is showing up. Your caring presence means a lot, even if you don’t know what to say. (Actually, “I don’t know what to say” isn’t such a bad thing to say.)


Stratman said...

I don't think people have any idea what to say to someone with cancer.

It has such a bad reputation as a killer I found people began shying away from me when I was first diagnosed.

This hurt much worse than someone saying something that might be deemed inappropriate but backed by good intentions.

Tom Clarke said...

Well, Thanks for the "props" as the kids say now days. Who'd have thought I'd be quoted on a pastor's website (does one of those little icons that people put in their e-mails convey amazement?)!

I hope anybody that reads that one entry on my blog that you have referred to give the site a fair chance before rendering judgment. From that particular entry, one might get the impression that I cannot carry on a conversation that doesn't involve four letter words. I am able to do so, and occasionally even do. :-)

On a more serious note, the last paragraph of your blog today is a gem. Aside from the Woody Allen quote which has always been one of my favorites, there is a fundamental truth to it. People need human interaction and companionship, not shunning, especially at a time when they are facing great adversity. Cancer is not contagious.

Tom Clarke said...

I should have added a post-script to my last entry. Your site is thoughtful and well written. May I list you on my links?


Carlos ("Carl") said...


I'd be glad if you listed me in your links.

Yes, folks, please don't judge Tom's blog by that one entry. He's got a lot to say that's worthwhile, in a lot of different ways. BTW, the four-letter words don't bother me. They convey passion about the subject. I edited them out mainly for the sake of others who may be reading here. We pastor types get quite used to people tiptoeing around us when it comes to certain kinds of language, even though we've heard it all.

Susan L said...

I have found that in any difficult situatioin it was those that offered the following type of comment were the most helpful "I am here for you, if you want to talk we can talk, if you need a ride or people to do your laundry, I can do that, if you want to go out and watch a movie and forget about it, that too." They acknowledge that the situation was difficult but then allowed me to let them know what I needed most that day. And I was often surprised, sometimes aquaintances seemed the most helpful.

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Exactly right, Susan. Sometimes what people receiving cancer treatment want most of all is the chance to just do something normal for a change.