Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
In the news and on our social media pages, we see lists of dos and don’ts for just about everything under the sun. New moms, in-laws, company get togethers – the list of proprieties goes on and on. One type of list that we see quite often is a list for what to say and not to say to people with critical illnesses, like cancer. The majority of these advice columns are directed at healthy people with regards to their relationships with a patient.
The other day, I was scrolling through some posts on a closed cancer group, and I was struck by something. While there are tons of articles advising “healthy people” how to support and comfort a patient, we don’t see a lot of guidance about how survivors should speak to current patients. You see a lot of people trying to help, but sometimes that attempt doesn’t come across the way the writer intended. With this in mind, I spoke with some fellow survivors over the last week about their journeys, what they found helpful, and what drove them nuts. Let’s take some time today to talk about what we can do as survivors and fellow cancer patients to empower our brothers and sisters.
Type Doesn’t Matter
What I’m about to say may sound a little controversial – but just bear with me for a minute. When we are supporting one another, let’s set one thing straight – the type of cancer that you had versus the type that your friend, or a complete stranger, is fighting should have zero impact on the support that you give. As we talked about in “Every Ribbon Counts”, each and every one of us are fighting this beast and our journey is important. Our doctors learn from every patient – be it basal cell carcinoma or late stage pancreatic cancer. A friend of mine with metastatic thyroid cancer told me that she has heard from numerous other cancer patients, “Well, at least you didn’t have to have chemo.” These people meant well – we all know that – but they don’t realize that she will battle this beast for the rest of her life, or the hell that she has experienced already. We should always aim to lift up our fellow cancer patient, never tell them that what you experienced was worse that what they are going through.
Just as when we are new parents and people come out of the woodwork to tell us how to raise our children, everyone seems to have an opinion on cancer treatments. Some people will go with traditional treatments as prescribed by their physicians, some will seek alternative treatments, some may go for a combination, and still some patients will opt to forgo treatments and seek palliative care. Guess what – every single one of these options is okay. That probably sounds weird coming from me, with my background in traditional medicine and research – but here’s the deal – these are incredibly personal decisions and we don’t always know all the factors that went into that decision.
What I’m getting at here is, unless the patient asks for your advice or opinion – just be supportive – which we should be regardless. If they are opting to travel to the rain forest to seek a cure (I literally saw this on a page last week) and you disagree – just wish them good luck and safe travels. If you are a proponent of herbal and alternative therapies and the patient has opted for traditional care, offer your prayers for healing. We don’t always have to agree – but we can always be decent humans.
Giving Your Opinion
Now then, a friend of mine from college that overcame breast cancer – she was (and still is) voracious for information on all sides. She told me, “It especially helped me to meet and know people who had major success in a given modality. I wanted to hear all the stories and know what was the similar thread in their success.”
When a patient asks your opinion or advice, as she did, then of course you should tell them what you think and about your experiences. For her, and many others – this information gathering is vital to their decision. Always remember though, don’t trash options with which you don’t agree. Before you give advice or an opinion to a patient, stop and think – is this helpful to him/her? Will this empower them to make better decisions?
How You Can Help
Just as every cancer is different, so is every patient. The main message that I got from my survivor friends is that we must empower one another. Let your friend know that you are there whether they need a shoulder or a cheerleader – or both!
Did a certain planner help you keep track of appointments? Tell them!
Did a specific candle help calm you before treatments? Share it!
Did a special tea settle your stomach after chemo? Gift it!
Provide your friend with information on local cancer resources that can be helpful for them and their caregivers. Cancer associations can also provide a wealth of information to patients on what to expect, as well as information for their specific type of cancer.
As always, much love, many prayers, and abundant blessings to all of the warriors out there!