Throwback Thursday! How To Talk To A Cancer Patient (and her husband)

(Jan. 30, 2016) Few things make normally glib, sociable people  turn awkward like cancer does. Their smiles vanish from their face as soon as the word cancer leaves our lips. A brief uncomfortable silence occurs before they think of a question or a comment. During that all too brief moment, my wife and I cringe, wondering what unintentionally insensitive question or comment we’ll hear.

I’m here to say, relax. You being awkward doesn’t help us feel any better. You know what would make us feel better? Everyone acting normally. You may not run into me or my wife in the real world, but if you haven’t been already, you will certainly be touched by cancer at some point. I’m hoping this post will prepare you to be a more understanding friend or family member.

Cancer is not contagious: They’re not lepers. For cripes sake feel free to give them a hug and actually smile at them.  Radiation and chemotherapy don’t make them radioactive or give them superpowers. (I wish. She still can’t microwave food with her eyes and I still have to open all the jars) You taking a step back and having your face drop doesn’t make someone feel better. Ask about the treatment plan. Ask where they’re going for treatment. Offer to send a meal over. Maybe gift certificates for his and hers massages. Just don’t be afraid of it. We’re trying not to be and smiles are in short supply sometimes.

Picture courtesy my upper left arm.

Picture courtesy of my upper left arm.

Only Tell Stories of Triumph:  Guess what? We don’t want to hear a story about your uncle who succumbed to cancer after a brave three year battle. Do you want to hear the likelihood of surviving a plane crash right before you leave for the airport? We don’t want to hear how tough the side effects from treatment were. My wife is not your uncle. Every cancer journey is unique. If you have stories of friends and family who have overcome the disease and are living happily, fine, we’ll take those.

Reach Out: Sometimes people undergoing treatment for cancer have to miss some time at work. Usually not because of the disease, but because of the treatment. Even if they have family around, they feel alone and isolated from their work peeps. Remind them that you haven’t forgotten them. Call, text, and post funny things on Facebook and tag them. Or ask when you can visit!

Cancer is not a death sentence: Do not ask “What’s the prognosis?” What you’re really saying is “Are you going to live?”  I’d love to hear my wife tearfully respond, “The doctor said I only have forty years left.” It’s her second time with cancer. There are millions and millions of people out there who successfully overcome cancer time and time again.

Hopefully this didn’t seem too flippant for such a serious topic, but guess what? People with cancer and their families don’t need you to put a pink ribbon magnet on your minivan or for you to run a 5K. They just need their friends and family to be who you’ve always been. Years ago before my wife had cancer the first time, I was the awkward, avoidant person, not knowing how to address the elephant in the room. The most supportive thing you can do for someone with cancer is be the same friend or supportive family member you were before they had cancer, because when the cancer has been beaten they’re still the same person they were, only stronger .  ~Phil

Addendum: Two years after I posted this, my wife is doing well.

23 responses to “Throwback Thursday! How To Talk To A Cancer Patient (and her husband)

  1. AMEN!!!!!!!!! What a GREAT post!!!!! As a 25 year survivor of Stage IV Hodgkins Lymphoma and as a former chemotherapy/oncology nurse as well, I could not agree more!!!!! I remember that nightmarish of that time in my life, as I was also trying to raise my 18 month old daughter….. literally begging God to let me be around at least until she got into Kindergarten. Then, when I was still here for that, I begged for 5 more years. She is now almost 29 and I am considered “cured”. What I wanted most during that early time, other than mere survival, was just a sense of “normalcy” in everything around me. But I too remember all the “elephant in the room” moments. So glad to hear your wife is doing well 😊

  2. Great post, Phil. You are right, all of us will be touched by cancer at some point in our lives. A sister, a brother, a spouse, ourselves, cancer is indiscriminate. Thank you for sharing so honestly.

  3. I hope your wife is still doing well. This is such a useful post as I think a lot of people shy away from visiting etc because they’re worried they’ll upset the person or say the wrong thing. I think we all need a reminder that we’re human and we all just need to remember that. Try to think how would you feel? What would you want?

  4. The awkward moments probably come about because we haven’t read posts like this one. Thanks for being so honest in this post. Glad your wife is doing well.

  5. I love this post. High five!

  6. What a brilliant, perfect post Phil. I’ve fucked up in the past when I’ve been in the company of someone with cancer. Like a bumbling idiot. Never again. So happy to hear your wife is doing well.

  7. I’m happy to hear your wife is doing well, Phil.

    Great post – that awkwardness is something all of us can relate to at some point. I’ve learned that the best thing to do is take my cue from the person I’m with. It’s a moving target – sometimes they just want someone to listen, other days the exact opposite … someone to provide a distraction … and everything in between.

  8. Well done. With enough fears of our own, don’t pile on the fear and doubt. Do something practical.

  9. Wow! What a terrific story. And what incredibly useful advice. Thank you, Phil. So glad your wife is doing well.

  10. I lost 2 sisters to cancer. The thing that bugged them was second hand enquiries after them. When people would ask how they were Id say “why don’t you ask THEM, they’d love to hear from you” ” oh I don’t want to upset them by bringing up the subject “they’d say… yeah like they forget they have cancer until you ring and remind them!!! Another thing that pissed them off was people who said” I’m always thinking of them” we’ll pick up the fucking phone and tell them you’re thinking of them. Cancer didn’t give them mental telepathy so how do they know !!!
    Sorry for rant and so glad your wife is well. That’s fabulous news 😀😀😀

  11. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. She had 19 months of intense treatment and it was hard for us all. Especially the fact that her immune system was so compromised. She has been clear for since Oct 2015 and she is doing amazingly well. She will turn 80 in October this year and we are having a huge party. I am already planning the cake.

  12. Please check out my latest post ‘why I cut my hair’ to support children fighting from cancer and how we can bring smile on their face. I’m starting this hair donation revolution in my country. Please spread it as much as possible to the world.

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