Things to never say to a cancer patient

Leading with empathy.

As a parent, you watch your child take their first breath, and you never anticipate or want to ever see their last breath. My daughter left this world, and yes, I saw her first breath and the last. Something so unimaginable, unfathomable and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.

My world consisted of 2 years of hospital, home, hospital again and repeat. It was a time in my life that was by far the most difficult however, the most beautiful too as I had my daughter with me. I felt helpless most of the time. Wishing the cancer could be my problem and not hers.

I know it’s hard for others to comprehend and to even think of the words to say. At times, I felt as if people would say things to me that I disliked. Words matter, be mindful of what you’re saying and how it comes out. I realize it’s hard to know what to say. Just remember the patient and family are in a very sensitive mind frame and what you say matters more now.

During my most sensitive time, these are the few statements, I disliked the most and I feel you shouldn’t say to a cancer patient, or a parent of a cancer patient:

Things you should never say:

1) “Be positive.” This used to upset me to the point of disgust. If I don’t stay positive does that mean my child is going to die? Yes, positivity is great, but let’s face it, in the heat of adversity, telling someone how to feel and think is the worst thing you can do. My child is terminal, and your telling me to be positive? Think of the logic in that.

2) “Be strong.” You have no clue how much strength I have right now, because I feel like bawling my eyes out and asking God “why” repeatedly. Why can’t I cry? My child is dying? I don’t do it in front of her but I do it when she’s sleeping because every time they poke her, she cries, and then has to be sedated. It’s hard. It kills me. A bone marrow biopsy, ever had one? I’ve watched them stick a long needle in her back, to discharge fluid from her bone, while she squirmed and cried, and was held back. Stay strong you ask? Please re-consider saying that to anyone. You do not know how much strength they are facing just to be present. Showing emotion is not a weakness. Strength comes in varying ways, so telling someone that, is like telling them how to feel.

3) “I hope you feel better.”- You hope? Is it that simple? By the way, it’s cancer not a cold.

4) “I call you and you never answer. — Sorry I’m a little busy right now. You’ll have to take a backseat. Please understand the amount of things that are going on in the patient’s head at present. Calling you back is not a priority and there shouldn’t be any expectation.

5) “You’re going to be just fine.” — How do you know, are you a doctor? Did you see my reports and analyze them?

6) Silence — Saying nothing is like disregarding everything the patient is going through. Instead just lead with empathy by stating words such as “I’m so sad to hear about all of this, I’m here for you,” is much better than silence.

The key is empathy. Enter the room, or call with an authentically empathetic voice. Really place yourself in that person’s shoes. Its an ultra-sensitive time for him/her and they are dealing with a variety of emotions. Don’t tell them how to feel, just be there, listen and say things such:

“Please know I’m thinking about you.”

“Should you need me, I’m here for you, in any capacity.”

“Its great news that you’re almost at the end of your treatment.”

“How do you feel about your upcoming surgery or upcoming radiation.”

“We’ll miss you at the office and look forward to your return.”

“I’m going to drop off dinner for you. What type of food do you prefer?”

“Don’t feel obligated to write or call me back. Just know I’m here should you need me.”

Lastly, just listen with an empathetic ear. Place yourself in their shoes and try to understand all that is going on for them. Cancer is serious and not a walk in the park, just be empathetic. Listening, holding their hand and letting him/her share their feelings is the greatest gift you can give.

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