Saturday, August 9, 2014


The article below is from As I priest, I think I've asked some probing questions that this secular article would not recommend but I do so as a priest-doctor offering spiritual medicine and healing. Overall, though I think these suggestions are very good. What do you think?

Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who Has Cancer

By Jane Bianchi

It’s important to choose your words carefully when speaking to a cancer patient. Though you probably mean well, it’s all too easy to accidentally insult someone. According to Barbara L. Andersen, PhD, a researcher and professor of psychology, two of the best things to say are easy: “I’m sorry you’re ill” and “I’m thinking of you.” In fact, sometimes gestures speak louder than words. For instance, sending flowers or watching TV with your friend can offer comfort. Every cancer patient has a different opinion and experience, of course, and many know that you do mean well. But to avoid putting your foot in your mouth, don’t utter these next 10 phrases. Photo by Getty Images

1. “You are strong and will get through this.”
Jacki Donaldson, a 44-year-old cancer survivor and writer/editor in Gainesville, FL, says this sends the message that if you need to be tough to survive. And that’s not necessarily true. “I personally like when someone meets me where I am and says, ‘How unfair. You must be so mad.’ These words validate my feelings and make me feel understood. Misery does love company. Misery does not always love the positive spin on tragic life events,” she says.

2. “How are you feeling?”
This might surprise you, since you may feel that this sort of phrase shows that you care. But here’s the problem with it: “So many people ask patients that. It gets really old and annoying after a while,” says Dr. Andersen. Also, keep in mind that the person probably doesn’t feel so great, and asking this question only reminds him or her of that.

3. “Can I do anything to help you?”
It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s too broad and, as a result, the patient will likely say no. He or she is probably too overwhelmed to think of a task, so suggest doing something specific for the person instead, suggests Teresa Rhyne, a 51-year-old lawyer and cancer survivor in Riverside, CA. Say, for example, “I’d like to bring you dinner. Would Tuesday or Wednesday night be better?” If you can’t bring the person dinner, maybe you could buy groceries, take care of his or her kids one afternoon or give the person a ride to treatment. If there’s a spouse or friend in charge of logistics, ask that person what you can do.

4. “How serious is the cancer?”
Don’t ask detailed questions about the diagnosis or treatment plan. Other no-no’s include: “How many chemo sessions do you have?” and “Are you getting radiation?” Your main concern should be supporting the patient, says Dr. Andersen. These types of questions may stress out the patient, since she may not know all the answers. Remember that some patients are more private than others, so don’t pry-only discuss these matters if the patient brings them up.

5. “My grandmother/mom/sister/aunt/friend had cancer…”
The patient’s situation may remind you of someone else, but telling a story about a family member or friend who has or had cancer is simply irrelevant-and it’s especially a bad idea if it’s a fatal story. Lynne Feldman, 68, a lawyer and cancer survivor in Saddle River, NJ, says, “Telling me about Cousin Syd’s current third round of chemo for prostate cancer didn’t help me to process my diagnosis or make decisions about my own cancer treatment.”

6. “I read an article in the newspaper that said you should…”
Please don’t play doctor-the patient already has at least one of those. Says Dr. Andersen, “If someone wants information, he or she will ask for it.” The patient is likely already being inundated with information and advice from a medical team, so your two cents about an article from a newspaper, magazine or online publication isn’t necessary.
7. “Your hair looks good like that.”
Anything that calls attention to hair loss or a change in hair color or texture or a wig due to chemotherapy is not recommended, says 50-year-old cancer survivor Sarah Dugo, a sales and marketing executive who lives in Charlotte, NC. “It’s a devastating outward sign of being different and sick,” she says. “People actually came up and rubbed my stubbly head!” Same goes for any comments about weight loss. 

8. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
This phrase is commonly tossed around in hospitals. If you’re religious, this might be something that comforts you. But if the patient isn’t religious, this isn’t going to make him or her feel any better, says Dr. Andersen. In fact, it’s going to make the person feel uncomfortable. Before you say it, ask yourself, “Is this a comment about me or is it a comment that would be helpful to the patient?”

9. “I know how you feel.”
The truth is, you never really do. “If you’ve been through a cancer experience, you may have an understanding, but unless you are going through the patient’s identical experience, you have no idea what that person’s experience is like,” says Christine Clifford, a cancer survivor and the CEO and founder of in Edina, MN. Try to stay focused on the patient’s needs and concerns.

10. “You must have done something to get it.”
Believe it or not, someone once said that to Haralee Weintraub, 60, the CEO of a garment company in Portland, OR, when she had cancer. “I stopped talking to some people over their comments,” she says. Dr. Andersen says she sees this happen a lot with lung-cancer patients-people will mention whether or not they smoked cigarettes, which isn’t appropriate. Don’t even begin to bring up the potential cause of the cancer, because that unfairly assigns blame to the patient.


Cameron said...

In short: say nothing at all to people who have cancer.

Rood Screen said...

I think the article can be used to facilitate conversations among those who care for, or are preparing to care for, those combating cancer. However, the danger with distributing these warnings to others is that they will fear talking to friends and neighbors with cancer.

Gene said...

Be yourself, be genuine, be sensitive. Listen.

rcg said...

Generally sound advice. The only one I didn't care for was about watch television. The person is looking into the abyss and wasting more time with that box would be a shame. Ask if they have a book they like for you to read to them; maybe recommend one. Spend real time together. Unless you know how to cure cancer you probably don't have much to say about it.

Православный физик said...

In all situations prudence....I don't know if I could hold to this list as a universal list which to follow. There are some who like to know that they're not alone in suffering. There are some that need's rather simple, know the person you're supporting, love them, pray for them.

Anonymous said...

Cameron: Ha! You're right!

Honestly, what ever happened to the person with cancer being kind enough to understand the well meaning nature of any comments made, and dealing with them with a simple "thank you"? Just because you're sick, sick to death, doesn't mean you should lose your manners. Can't people even be gracious anymore, or does their cancer trump any behavior of anyone else?
Honestly, articles like this seem to encourage the surly behavior you sometimes see in sick people. It's not good.
Maybe a little consideration from both sides for each other is the way to go.
Truthfully, I can't imagine how positively commenting on someone's hair/wig/scarf is rude. I don't know, but when I've been sick, I appreciated peoples' attention, concern, and good wishes. But I've never had cancer or a life threatening disease, so maybe it's different.

George said...

All the comments here are right on. Except for Cameron although I'm thinking he was just being facetious. One approach which is good is to tell the person you are available to help in some way. Give them your phone number or email so they can contact you if assistance is needed or the person just wants to talk to someone.

Cameron said...

I'm a nurse--yes a damn male nurse Gene so be quiet--and I don't follow "rules" when talking to patients. I have a natural conversation about whatever I need to talk about: treatments, meds, how they're feeling, what they are watching on tv, etc. The only principle to go by really is to ask open-ended questions.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

There's nothing wrong with a male nurse other than delineating the gender! Maybe like stewardess was changed to Flight Attendant when more men became stewards, we could find a new term for nurse (the word does have a feminine origin in terms of a "nursing mother")Maybe Cameron you can be a trail blazer and call yourself a "Medical Attendant" and MA although that might be called ma! :)

Gene said...

Cameron, I have no problem with male nurses. Quit stereotyping.

rcg said...

I agree with Cameron and Bee, but it seems that the social graces are stretched thin when one is suffering and asking the person to exercise greater dignity than was usual is too much to expect.

Joe is right, too. We have to respond to the situation. I have noticed that people think they are helping when they come to visit the ill or suffering and are often placing a greater strain on the person to ask as host or elevate to a philosophical discussion. This is often done as if the visitor is the only person making that vista or observation.

So like Joe says, pray and think about the person in need before you act.

Rood Screen said...

Perhaps nurses should be called "medics", making the profession more obviously gender neutral. Military first-aid stretcher-bearers could be called "medical attendants", rather than medics. At any rate, I do miss the little hats female nurses once wore in the USA. UK nurse wore a peculiar little watch.

Gene said...

The nursing profession has gone to Hell. Once they did away with the hospital nursing programs and went to the (literal) BS degree and changed to a more business/admin. oriented program, nursing began to decline. Then, as usual, they dumbed down the standards and dumbed down the standardized test.
The day those women graduated from the residential hospital programs, they could run a unit or an OR. Now, they can barely set up meds without someone standing over them. My wife told me of an incident where a brand new, pregnant RN nursing grad from a major local college came to work on her floor . In conversation, my wife realized that this girl thought the placenta surrounded the foetus and was coterminal with the amniotic sac. She had to sit down and literally draw the girl a picture and explain HS biology/embryology.
Another graduate made the statement, "I guess if you got shot in the kidney all that urine would gush out," indicating that she believed the kidneys to be big, urine filled balloons. And, this is from a BS program! The list goes on...

George said...

Wow, a nurse (4 year graduate) confused the kidney with the bladder? Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised but I am. Anyway, a few years ago because one of our computer systems at work did not have a designation for a nurse, I came up with "caregiver" which we now use. Rather pedestrian, I know. What not nurse or something else? Well, this was an older system which utilized the first letter of the designation in one of the fields. "N" was already being used for some other clinical type. I like Medical Attendent but "M" was also taken.

rcg said...

When military medicine went through its dilution many years ago my squadron was presented with the new procedures where the sick and injured were taken to a location and inspected by people who refused to identify their profession. They were all "care givers". No one knew what the young lieutenant was talking about, where were the doctors and nurses? They were replaced with technicians. Many are quite good at specific issues, most are terrible problem solvers. I was hospitalized for three days with an aggressive infection that threatened to take my leg. I was discussing the situation with the 'doctor' who asked what I thought we should do. I was astounded that she was that far out of her depth. I recommend lancing and irrigation with peroxide. I did it myself and the infection was gone within 24 hours and I checked myself out.

Gene said...

Terms like "caregiver," "health care professional," and "service provider" are more than just terms. They are deliberate egalitarian, leveling designations which attempt to lump health techs, PA's, nurses, etc. with physicians. Another ploy is to change the name of xyz Medical School to xyz "school of health sciences. Socialists, progressives, and egalitarians hate doctors and consider them elitist and over paid. Of course, when they overdose on their favorite drug, get a torn sphincter from their favorite activity, or have their heart attack they insist on being seen by a real doctor…LOL!

George said...

In my previous comment, instead of "What not nurse" I meant to type "Why not nurse". This particular computer software (which resides in an IBM mainframe environment) is an older type software. It used the first letter of the clinical designation in one of the fields and "N"was already used for Nurse Practitioner so using "N" was out. "M" likewise was already used. So it ended up being caregiver, which covered regular nurses and newer types such as CNS (Clinical Nurse Specialist) and CNM (Certified Nurse Midwife)

George said...

There are now stand alone clinics (usually in rural areas but now popping up in urban areas also) that are staffed by just N.P.'s and nurses-no physicians at all. By the way, N.P.'s and PA's are what are now known as "mid-levels".

Alice said...

Lung cancer, Kidney cancer or what ever cancer the patient has, it's still the same treatment you must provide them and one of the best way is to talk to them in a normal yet happier way. Let them feel healthy and happy. My mom past away with Kidney cancer and she was smiling before she died. I know she's in good hands now.