I was taught years ago that you should avoid writing when feeling overly emotional. That is especially true, I was told, when you’re feeling hurt and angry.
I’m breaking that rule right now.
Practically everyone has been touched by cancer, in one way or another. Often it’s treatable, even curable. Other times it isn’t. When it takes a loved one, as it recently did in my life, we are overcome with sadness and exasperation. Throughout the agonizing final months, it felt like we could only watch the steady decline as we searched for the right words to say to the patient.
The reality of cancer in our lives is daunting: Each year approximately 2,000,000 Americans are diagnosed and over 600,000 die from it. Almost 40% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point of their lives.
In the face of this harsh reality, it behooves us to become better at learning how to talk — and listen — to a cancer patient.
We have all heard the common words and phrases of well-intentioned people: Be strong, You’re a fighter, Hang in there, Stay positive and so on. All sincere expressions, but they feel empty and syrupy. I doubt they offer much comfort to the patient.
We’ve got to get better at this.
We want to say the right thing to someone in the grips of cancer, but too often we fail. I know I have. One cancer patient I knew was a young man who was facing a dire prognosis. His cancer was extremely rare, and I asked him for the specific name of the cancer. The question immediately made him uncomfortable. He finally said that he didn’t want to tell me because “you’ll look it up and see how awful it is."
That was the last time I saw him. I will always regret asking that question. It was invasive and inappropriate, and it still pains me to think about it. He had the right to keep that information private and it was not my place to pry.
More recently, I struggled to say the right thing when someone I loved lay dying. I so wanted to find the perfect words to say to her. I thought of the professional people I’ve seen who deal with cancer patients every day — nurses, doctors, hospice workers, clergy. They’re all saints in my book, and they can teach us a great deal about how to talk to a cancer patient.
I asked a rabbi friend who works with hospice how she knows what to say. Her response was simple:
I just try to bring some quiet and comfort in those moments.
Experience has taught her to spare the pep talk. In one recent situation, she told me, she met with a terminally ill patient, got close to the patient’s ear and quietly sang the Mi Shebeirach and recited the Schema. Just a quiet, soft and sweet gesture.
The American Cancer Society offers a number of compassionate and appropriate suggestions. A few examples:
Gear the conversation to subjects that you know your friend likes to talk about.
Be sensitive to your friend’s attention span, and understand that they may be too tired to participate actively.
Help your friend participate in the conversation by asking questions.
Ask for their advice, their opinions, and how they’re feeling.
Give honest compliments, such as “You look rested today.”
Allow your friend to be negative, silent, or withdrawn, if that is how they are feeling.
They also offered up what not to say:
Don’t show “false optimism”, including things like “stay positive.”
Don’t say you “know how they feel."
Don’t leave out your friend when talking to others in the room, or assume they can’t hear you even if they appear to be asleep.
Don’t offer medical advice or your opinion on things like diet, vitamins and herbal therapies.
Never say things like “you look pale” or “you’ve lost weight."
Don’t share stories about family members or friends who have had cancer. Everyone is different. Better to just let them know that you’re familiar with cancer based on personal experience and see if they want to discuss it further.
Other sources suggested other things to say:
“Maybe it would help if we talked about how you feel, and what the future may bring.”
“Your beautiful smile always brings me so much joy.”
“I’m thinking about you and how much I admire you.”
“Everyone is thinking of you.”
”Hope today is one of the good days.”
I’d add another one to the mix, based on personal experience: don’t minimize someone’s cancer. Some people think that there are "good cancers" — that the cancer is not an automatic death sentence. That’s not always true, and dismissing someone’s worry accomplishes nothing.
I can assure you that that is not what the patient wants to hear. Cancer is cancer, and once a patient has seen the words “malignant cancer” on their chart, they aren't particularly in the mood to hear how lucky they are.
At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — the oldest and largest private cancer hospital in the world — the nurses wear t-shirts with the words: “Imagine a world with no cancer." A beautiful but still elusive dream.
Until that dream is realized, we can’t escape the reality that cancer isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We may be powerless to stop it, but we can at least take the time to educate ourselves on finding the words that will bring comfort to one who desperately needs it.