Marion Witte

March 30, 2014

Wellness – Part 3 – A Short Course in Cancer Etiquette

Filed under: Wellness — Marion Witte @ 12:00 am

Cancer Etiquette

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!


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  1. Marion:
    Very well said. You are right, it is difficult to know what to say, whether being sympathetic or empathetic. I think mostly the person you share with feels guilty that they have been spared somehow while their dear friend or relative has this journey to follow. I do appreciate your words of wisdom as my son-in-law with his stage 4 lymphoma has left me dumbfounded at times as to how to comfort when there isn’t much hope. I keep you in my prayers and hope for your full recovery in whatever way you choose to fight this disease. I love you, Denise

    Comment by Denise — March 30, 2014 @ 11:28 am

  2. My niece has just started this journey and now I have a better idea how to be with her. Thanks Marion

    Comment by christie gust — March 30, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

  3. Hi, Marion. I just saw your blog and as usual you did a marvelous job of writing. It sounds like you are fighting a battle yourself and I am really sorry you have to go through that. I hope you are receiving the care you want and I am sure you have a great support system around you. Love to you and Angela.

    Comment by Evelyn — March 30, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

  4. Marion
    This part 3 is my favorite writing so far. You just gave the world permission to relax around people who are dealing with any kind of illiness especially cancer. Most people react from their own place of fear of the word. If i dont say the word then it wont be true. Your couragous voice i am sure speaks for so many in the world. Having loss both my sister and father to cancer each journey was unique experience and you sharing your thoughts and journey with me has helped me to view things differently. Thank you my friend and love you so much for allowing me the joy of doing guided meditations for you .
    Hugging you always

    Comment by Angie — March 30, 2014 @ 7:46 pm

  5. Excellent piece, Marion.

    Interestingly, your suggestions work for any kind of bad news or disappointment. Offering unsolicited advice is offensive. Telling someone you know what they’re going through, actually minimizes the person’s feelings. Any sentence that starts with “At least…” or “You should…” will not end well.

    When I was going through my worst times, I avoided all people because all too often, those well-meaning (but flippant) comments were enough to send me over the edge. But I, like you, believe most people mean well. They don’t know what to say so they just blurt. I’m certainly guilty so it would be wrong for me to judge others too harshly.

    Glad you’re doing better my friend.

    Comment by Grace Peterson — March 31, 2014 @ 11:53 am

  6. Your personal stories are always Insightful and honest. I will say I hate (not a word I use often) that you’re going through this and yes cancer does suck big time! I think one of the worst things anyone can do when they find out a friend, relative, etc. has cancer is ignore the person or situation because they don’t know what to say or how to respond. As you stated, being supportive and being a good listener are two of the best ways to help support someone going through the process. I feel that sometimes that is enough to let someone know, “Hey I care about you and wanted to make sure you knew how much.” Love you Marion! Know that you’re in my thoughts and prayers daily

    Comment by Wanda — April 6, 2014 @ 11:36 pm

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