Thursday, February 2, 2017

But I Was Only Trying to Be Helpful

Oh, you know this feeling: You were only trying to be helpful, or to be kind, or to brighten her day. But it turns out that you were unkind, insensitive or even hurtful. How does that happen?

When talking to someone who has cancer, or the caregiver of someone with cancer, it’s not always easy to say the right thing. They have cancer but you can all too easily have foot-in-mouth disease.

The short answer to this dilemma is: Listen more. Talk less. Or, ask before you talk. That one translates as, “May I ask about how you are doing?” or “May I ask about your treatment?” or even, “Do you want to talk about your health—or would you rather hear the gossip from work?”

There is no perfect advice nor a perfect thing to say when you hear that someone has
cancer. If you have met one person with cancer, you met one person with cancer. Some folks will want to talk and talk about details and medical info. Some folks want to talk only to their doc, or partner, or support group. And no, you don’t get to nominate yourself to be part of the support group: it’s by invitation only.

But I know, I know, I know how deeply tempting it is, especially if you have cancer or you are a caregiver. And you often do have great advice and perspective. You just don’t get to slosh it all over someone with out asking permission. I stumble into this all the time. I mean, here I am blogging about couples and cancer: I read the research, I interview experts, I know some stuff-- so I’m always tempted. But I try to keep it here on the blog—mostly.

Also be careful with optimism. It’s great that your personality tips that way but saying, “Everything’s going to be great” may not be true, and now your friend knows they can’t confide in you or they know that, as Jack Nicolson said in the movie A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth.”

Let the person with cancer lead the conversation. Offer news and updates on your life and the things that your common field of interest suggests. Take your lead on their language about cancer as well: If they are battling cancer or in a war with cancer you can use military lingo, but if they are not using militaristic metaphors, lay off—even if that is what you got you through your chemo. 

All of this requires powerful listening skills, and caring. So have a little talk with yourself before you talk to your friend. 


Anonymous said...

Also, what I found/find terribly intrusive were/are well meaning people ( not in my inner circle), who when finding out that you had gone through treatment, insist on asking where your cancer was and eyeball your body. Stop! It's invasive and rude!

Diane said...

Oh, I know. Or you see them trying to check out your hair: thinner? yours? wig?