If your friend is living with cancer, don't pretend that nothing is wrong.
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Intense emotional highs and lows are often a cancer victim’s constant companion. I’ve learned what to say and what not to say since my best friend Mary* has been stricken with the disease for the second time. Her prognosis is much worse this time, and I try to take my cues from her and imagine myself in her predicament. This helps me avoid some significant pitfalls when tiptoeing around the ubiquitous elephant in the room.
Don’t Avoid the Elephant
Don’t ever pretend that nothing is wrong. I have heard my friend talk bitterly about an acquaintance who paid a visit and didn’t inquire how she was feeling. Of course, deep down she knows that the person really cares, but she needs that spoken out loud.
It seems that my friend can’t really relax with visitors until the elephant in the room has been pinpointed.
My pal hates with a passion to lose control and let anyone see her cry. Therefore, when someone inquires how she is feeling, and she gets through it without bursting into tears, she can relax and focus on other topics. My friend yearns for the two of us to have conversations like we had before the cancer demon arrived. She wants to discuss the latest gossip about who is having an affair in town, or who is rapidly gaining weight that looks suspiciously like a pregnancy bump.
My gal pal will say, “I’m feeling okay today, but let’s not talk about it.” When she does this, I know that topic is taboo — for right now. She may change her mind and bring up the illness later on.
“Never ignore the elephant in the room. That’s rude; play with it and introduce it. ”
Donna Lynn Hope
You’re Not a Doctor or God
I have been in the medical field for over 30 years, but I have learned not to offer my opinion unless she asks for it. Don’t say things like, “I’ve heard your doctor is a quack. You should try this naturopath I’ve heard about.” The cancer victim is placing their very life in the hands of the doctor they have chosen and has most definitely given it a lot of thought. This professional is instrumental in forming a treatment plan that will have great bearing on whether she lives or kicks the bucket. The decision is hers, not mine.
Avoid Being a Naysayer
The question of “How long did they say you actually have to live?” often burns a hole in my brain after my buddy goes for a checkup or receives a scan. No one, not the doctor, the staff, the patient or the world’s most respected oncologist can determine the exact date when a person will die. To someone suffering with cancer, this is never an appropriate question. My goal should always be to direct her focus, energy and all her thoughts on, “How can I best help you survive?”
Curiosity kills cats, and it can also kill any optimism, hope or sense of reverie that the person with the disease may be hanging onto with every fiber of their being. I avoid questions like, “Won’t the chemo make you really sick?” or statements like, “I’ve heard that chemo makes you feel like you’d rather be dead.” Chemotherapy and various other treatments for cancer affect everyone differently. What makes one person vomit daily may simply make another person feel lethargic for a few hours. I never put macabre thoughts into my friend’s head.
I try always to remember that death is beckoning to my best pal daily. She is trying with every ounce of willpower to lick this frightening, life-threatening, and debilitating disease. When I visit, I must speak compassionately and with an optimistic outlook. I must provide her with strength and hope that she can kick cancer’s ass into the next century.