I don’t think any of us really expects people to offer us perfect words of wisdom or comfort when they find out about our diagnoses, but I am surprised by how many people have impulsively said really inappropriate and completely uncomforting things.
How do some people become so insensitive that they feel free to casually and graphically talk about cancer deaths — even to someone they don’t know well enough?
You know, I am getting tired of excusing certain behavior with the “people don’t know what to say” phrase. There has to be a line people can’t cross and they need to be aware of it. But whose job is it to educate the non-cancer people about these things? A patient going through treatments is too tired to do it.
Well, recently it happened to me again — and I responded exactly the way I wanted to. I was telling a co-worker (a temp, who was on her last day at the job) about my diagnosis and she didn’t even let me finish my sentence when she started giving me details about her friend’s painful death with cancer. I could not help myself. I leaned over her desk, looked into her eyes, and said “you know, you will die one day too.” I know my approach was not the best, and probably a little inappropriate, but I guess the annoyance caught up with me.
I reminded her that everyone will face mortality, but we don’t like to be reminded of it, do we? And of all people, we cancer patients certainly don’t NEED to be reminded of it. Anyway, that was the last I saw of my co-worker.
I’ve read a lot of articles on “what not to say to cancer patients.” I think we’ve all been victims of situations like the one I described above. Often I haven’t responded the way I wished I could have. I get upset with myself for that. But maybe there is no right way to respond.
During my treatments, I didn’t want to use my energy to educate these people while I was dealing with a serious health issue. And, personally, I was afraid to lose the support.
So, when inappropriate things were said to me, I would tell myself “their intentions were good” because I really wanted to believe that.
We all know that many people have a hard time with self-awareness, and most people don’t know what to say or how to act around you when you give them your news. But it gets frustrating sometimes – to the point that we feel alone. So wouldn’t it be better to correct/educate them so they don’t say something wrong to another cancer patient?
I think that just as much as we patients get educated about how to treat our disease, and how to cope with it, there should also be some level of education on how to approach a patient. But whose job is it to educate? Should we incorporate a new curriculum at home to teach our children about empathy and how to behave when others are facing a challenging situation such as cancer? We should already be doing that though.
Should hospitals incorporate new strategies on how to care/approach/communicate to a cancer patient? Or is this responsibility another part of the patient’s burden? After all, we patients are probably best qualified to lead a real discussion and create a better interaction between the patient and the non-cancer people.
I think this communication problem is one of the reasons why patients isolate themselves and don’t feel they receive the right support from non-cancer people (not saying all act in that way). This is why I didn’t tell everyone about my diagnosis in the beginning. I just wish we didn’t have to excuse other people’s behaviors anymore. I also wish they wouldn’t take things personally when we try to educate them.
By the way, it feels just as bad when it’s a family member facing cancer, and someone responds in the same way.
This is exactly the type of situation where you should ask yourself the question: “How would I feel if someone said that to me?” before saying anything.
I am curious to know what other patients think. What’s more important to you: to ignore or to educate? How do you react to people’s ignorant comments about your cancer? Do you use the energy to address it at the time those comments are said, or simply ignore them altogether and move on to the next interaction?