“Remember that the person you know with cancer may find it hard to ask for help or may be worried about seeming weak or vulnerable. Telling a person, “You’re so brave,” or “You’re so strong,” can put pressure on them to act strong when they may not feel up to it. Families can put subtle pressure on people with cancer by expecting or needing them to be strong all the time. In that case, you might play an important role for a friend who has cancer. They may know you well and trust you enough to confide in you. This kind of relationship can be a great gift for a person facing cancer.” – American Cancer Society®
So, what do you think is the commonest question that my wife and I get almost on a daily basis? And it's definitely not, "Would you like an all-around, all-expenses paid vacation to Italy?" That would be an awesome question for us both. But seriously, when talking to a family member, friend, or colleague who has…or has had…cancer, it would be better to hold your tongue when thinking to ask, "How are you doing?" These words, despite their tender meaning, are really not helpful to someone fighting cancer (or who has just finished treatment).
Being first diagnosed with cancer was the hardest moment I’ve had to face in life. But being told that your cancer is spreading to other parts of the body, well…I just don’t have the words to describe how I feel sometimes. In fact, for me, having to fight cancer is much harder – both mentally and physically – compared when I was a Marine serving in the first Gulf War. And hearing words like, "How are you doing" or "Everything will be fine" is definitely a damper on my confidence and esteem.
I know what you must be thinking? How can a simple statement, "How are you doing?" be wrong, albeit well-intended, to say to someone with cancer? I realize the person asking, "How are you doing" is intended to make me feel supported and cared about. However, despite this commonly asked question, it tends to have a negative impact on those who are facing a life-threatening disease.
When talking to a family member, friend, or colleague, I would recommend the following “don’t and bite your tongue” type of questions or comments:
- "How are you doing?"
- "You're going to be fine"
- "God told me that you’re going to be healed!" … I’ve been hearing this since my first diagnosis with Stage III in 2013, then Stage IV in 2016, and now with Advanced Stage IV.
- "God doesn't give you more than you can handle" … this is what you say when their trial is over.
- "My problems are not as bad of what you’re going through" … this is a no-no. Never compare your circumstance(s) with a cancer patient. This statement may place them in an uncomfortable mental state.
- "I have a [friend, cousin, grandmother, relative, dog, fish, cat, hamster, or whatever] who survived cancer" … every cancer patient’s situation is unique. There are no two individuals diagnosed with the same cancer will experience the disease in the same way. Why? Our bodies and minds and cellular make up are different.
- "My [friend, cousin, grandmother, relative, dog, fish, cat, hamster, or whatever] just died of cancer" … this is probably the worst thing you can say to a cancer patient.
- "And the third time is a charm!" … hmm, maybe not.
So, you might be wondering then, "What do I say to someone who has…or has had…cancer?"
I came across an article in Prevention magazine, where author Melissa Fiorenza suggested that people should say, "I feel terrible you’re going through this. Feel free to cry with me, to talk, or not to talk. I’ll take my lead from you." Another great example was recently given to me in a sympathy card with the words, "Be brave. Be strong. Be you." (Thanks, Bev!) Also, I would recommend these statements, as well, when talking to someone with cancer:
- "Tell me what’s helpful and what’s not."
- "Tell me whether you want to be alone or want company."
- "Tell me what to bring and when to leave."
- "What can I do help."
- "The way you fight cancer inspires me."
- "You will get through this no matter what the end brings."
Try these helpful tips and techniques (Source: Cancer Treatment Centers of America) when talking to someone with cancer. And check out "When Someone You Know Has Cancer" from American Cancer Society®.
To learn more about what not to say, columnist Jane E. Brody’s article, "What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient" offers some good advice on additional suggested "Don’ts."
With all said and done...I know there will be more "How are you doing Alex?" questions coming my way, especially from strangers. Ya know, maybe I can charge a dime for every time someone asks me that question. If I did get a dime for every time someone asked, "Alex, how are you doing?", I would be able to pay for that vacation to Italy :-)
Prayer Request: Dear Heavenly Father, please give Alex and Teresa the strength and peace as they continue to fight against cancer. Alex is weak, Father. His body aches. Please give him the comfort and support to live and work each day. Help him to realize and embrace the fact that life doesn’t stop for him. So, please give him that Marine spirit to fight with a positive attitude and tenacity, despite having cancer. And I pray that Alex will "always place his hope in you for renewed strength. And that he will soar on wings like an eagles; he will run and not grow weary, he will walk and not be faint" (Isaiah 40:31). If it’s by your will, dear Lord, and only by your will, heal and restore Alex physically. However, if you decide to take him home, then give Alex the peace as he walks his last path on earth. Amen.
Clinical Notes: Last week, I underwent two drug infusions: one was a clinical trial drug and the other an FDA approved one. Currently, I am enduring some side effects.
Photo journal here.
PS: Just a little humor :-)