When someone you know has cancer, please understand that it is safe to say that word out loud. Try saying it – CANCER. You won’t catch it by verbalizing it. And you won’t catch it by having a conversation with someone who has it. And if breast cancer is the illness being dealt with, you can say the word breast – you won’t get your mouth washed out with soap!
There is no Cancer Book of Etiquette which describes the best way to talk to a friend or relative who is dealing with this illness. Because of that, I would like to share some of my personal experiences and observations, in the hope it may help anyone who is faced with this situation now or in the future.
Some folks didn’t know what to say when they are informed about someone else’s cancer diagnosis, as at first the news catches them off guard. For others, their own fears set in, probably about what is going to happen to their friend or relative, and probably how it will impact them. My dear cousin, Denise, suggested that sometimes not knowing what to say may result from a feeling of guilt for not being the one who has to go through the journey. In spite of the difficulty of the situation, I have found most people to be very kind and compassionate, and each person handles the situation in a way in which they were comfortable.
As I go through this process, I’ve learned a lot about the difference between what it means to be sympathetic and to be empathic.
Sympathy is the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief or misfortune.
Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
While I believe any statements of care and concern are normally well-intentioned, and usually well-received, the impact on the listener of using a sympathetic approach versus the use of an empathetic approach is quite different.
It has been interesting to observe that many people opt for the sympathetic route, as it tends to skirt around the issue of emotions. Even if you don’t want “to go there,” you need to understand that the cancer patient is having strong feelings about the situation. I found that when people were being sympathetic, they would make comments like:
– Thank God they caught it early.
– We are blessed to have wonderful medical care in our community.
– You are lucky you have good insurance.
– At least it’s your breasts and not another organ.
While the above statements reflect a level of compassion, they didn’t really address the underlying emotions that I was experiencing during this time. In fact, the one about “at least it’s your breasts” left me thinking, “As opposed to what?”
For me, the empathetic responses I received just “felt” better, and they established a relationship of understanding between the speaker and me. And so, if I were personally going to try and be as empathetic as I could be, I would opt for using one of the following statements, as they are more relatable, and they communicate at an emotional level:
– What you are going through SUCKS.
– I can’t believe that would happen to YOU.
– When I went through this illness myself, I felt (fill in the blanks).
– It’s OK to be angry (or frustrated or pissed off).
– Life is NOT fair.
And so my friends, if you know someone who is dealing with cancer, I suggest you offer a small dose of sympathy, and a large portion of empathy. It may seem like a matter of semantics, but it really does make a difference in the degree of compassion the listener experiences.
There is also another statement you might consider avoiding. “If I were you, this is what I would do.” Although one’s intention is saying this may to be instructive and helpful, if you have never had cancer, you really have no idea what you would do. And the listener knows that all too well, based on their own compelling personal experience.
Some of the best ways to support someone dealing with cancer, or any other debilitating disease, are:
– Be a good listener to your friend or relative.
– Invite them to share whatever part of the journey they want to with you.
– Support whatever decisions they make or options they choose.
And yeah, it sucks that we have to think about any of this. See how I threw in some empathy there!