[cancer] How to talk to someone in my position

This is a question which keeps popping up. How do you talk to someone in my position, or an analogous one? Someone with a fatal illness, someone approaching or already within the end stages. I’ll say more on this down the line, but here’s a few simple tips based on my experiences.

  • Acknowledge what we’re saying. Changing the subject or acting like it isn’t real doesn’t help
  • Don’t minimize. We really do have a pretty good handle on what’s going on. What may look like emotional drama to you is the hard reality of everyday life for us.
  • Don’t project your own fears. Remember that you are losing a friend, but we are losing everyone we have ever known or loved.
  • Don’t go into problem solving mode. If we want advice, we’ll ask for it. Chances are good we or our caregivers have thought exhaustively about our choices and alternatives.
  • Don’t compare. Whatever we’re dealing with, whatever is killing us, that is overwhelmingly unique to our personal experience.
  • Listen.

The obvious caveat is that if we ask you something specific, run with it. The patient gets to make or break these guidelines at their own discretion. Likewise if your relationship has a specific dimension, one tip or another may not apply. I want my doctor to problem solve. When I’m talking to another cancer patient, we compare constantly. But these are a good starting point.

54 thoughts on “[cancer] How to talk to someone in my position

  1. Weirdmage says:

    I usually don’t comment on anything like this. Mostly because it brings up a lot of bad memories for me. My mother died of cancer when I was 18.
    I know I have a problem with seperating that fact from what is going on with people I follow/know online. I find your points both very well stated, and very good advice. And, “Don’t compare. Whatever we’re dealing with, whatever is killing us, that is overwhelmingly unique to our personal experience.” , is why I usually don’t say anything. I know the relationship I and my mother had doesn’t translate to anyone I know online. What I could say to her is not something that can be said to anyone else in the same way.

    What I want to say to you, Jay, though is if you ever want to talk to talk to me about what I experienced. I will be there. -And other than that, I wish you all the best. It may not mean a lot to you, but I am thinking of you. (What happened to my mother makes it impossible for me not to.)

  2. Thanks for the post, Jay. I’ve recently been dealing with a greater number of sick loved ones in my life. I wonder if, in your experience (and BONUS: as a writer), you have useful suggestions for public greetings as substitutes for “How are you?” Sometimes it feels like it just isn’t the “right time” to really listen to how someone is, yet that common greeting can open floodgates. I’ve been trying to switch over to “I am so glad to see you,” because wow – talk about habits that are hard to break!

    Sending you energy and gratitude

    1. Jay says:

      Yvette, I will address this question in another post in the next few days. Thank you for asking.

  3. How about inappropriate humor. Because I always head straight for inappropriate humor.

    1. Jay says:

      I *love* inappropriate humor. C.f. the ham joke. But for a lot of folks… eh… maybe not so much.

      1. Well, we’ll just sit together and say things that make people look at us funny. It’ll be fine.

  4. Jay—

    What sort of greeting do you recommend? When I saw you at Norwescon, I thought it best not to say, “Hey, how are you doing?” but I couldn’t think of a better salutation. A simple “hi” didn’t seem sufficient and “I admire your blog posts” doesn’t seem like much of a greeting.

    —Gordon V.G.

    1. Jay says:

      That’s actually a really good question. If you don’t mind, I’ll discuss it in a followup post sometime shortly.

      1. Jay—

        Of course I don’t mind. I look forward to reading your post on the topic.

        —Gordon V.G.

  5. Erica says:

    Excellent advice that is all too hard for many of us to remember sometimes. Thank you for being so open and honest about what you’re going through.

  6. anon says:

    And for those of us who are sick and disabled: Here is another how to list from tinybuddah.com

    Show Gratitude to People Who Love You

    1. Share a specific example of something they did for you and how it made a difference in your life.

    2. Do something little but thoughtful for them—like clean up after Thanksgiving dinner!

    3. Give a long, intimate hug; or if you know they don’t like hugs, stick out your hand for a handshake to cater to their preferences and make them smile.

    4. Tell them you’re there if they have anything they want to talk about—and let them know they have your full attention.

    5. Give them something of yours that you think they would enjoy, and let them know specifically why you want them to have it.

    6. Invite them to do something you know they’ve always wanted to do.

    7. Encourage them to try something you know they want to try, but haven’t yet because they’re scared.

    8. Offer to do something you know they don’t enjoy doing, like organizing their closet or mowing their lawn.

    9. Compliment them on a talent, skill, or strength that you admire.

    10. Look them straight in the eyes and say, “You make the world a better place.”

    Show Gratitude to People Who Challenge You

    11. Fully listen to what they have to say, instead of forming your rebuttal in your head and waiting to speak.

    12. Thank them for introducing you to a new way to look at things, even if you still don’t agree.

    13. Pinpoint something you admire about their commitment to their beliefs—even if you don’t hold them, as well.

    14. Resist the urge to tell them they’re wrong.

    15. Challenge them right back to be the best they can be, with love and positive intentions.

    16. If they inspired you to push outside your comfort zone, thank them for inspiring you to take a risk, and let them know how it paid off.

    17. Write a blog post about how they helped you see things differently and dedicate it to them.

    18. Use the lesson this person teaches you through your interactions, whether it’s patience, compassion, or courage.

    19. Introduce them to someone who may challenge them and help them grow, as they’ve done for you.

    20. Let them know how you appreciate when they challenge you in a loving, non-confrontational way—and if they don’t do that, be calm and kind when you ask them to do that going forward.

    Show Gratitude to People Who Serve You

    21. Give a larger tip than usual.

    22. If they have a tip jar, include a thoughtful note of appreciation along with your coins or bills.

    23. Smile when you order or enlist their assistance. Smiles are contagious, so give one away!

    24. If they serve you regularly, acknowledge something they always do well—like work efficiently or stay calm under pressure.

    25. Exhibit patience, even if you’re in a hurry.

    26. Let their superior know they do an outstanding job.

    27. Keep their workplace clean—for example, at a coffee shop, clean up after yourself at the sugar stand.

    28. Offer to get a coffee for them, if it’s someone working in or outside your home.

    29. If you have their contact information, send an email of appreciation—and let them know you just wanted to express your gratitude, so they don’t need to write back.

    30. Praise them in a review on Yelp and/or recommend them to people you know.

    Show Gratitude to People Who Work with You

    31. Write a hand-written thank you note, acknowledging things you value about them and their work.

    32. Offer to lighten their workload in some way if you are able.

    33. Bring back lunch for them if you know they’re working hard and likely haven’t had a chance to grab something.

    34. If you’re running a meeting, keep it short to show them you appreciate and respect their time.

    35. Ask them about their lives instead of always being all business. This doesn’t mean you need to pry into personal matters; it just means showing an interest in who they are as people.

    36. Be the calm, light voice in a stressful situation.

    37. Give them flowers to brighten their desk.

    38. Let their boss know how they’re doing a great job and contributing to the company.

    39. Listen fully if they’re having a difficult day, and recognize if they need space to figure things out on their own, not advice or help.

    40. Remember the little things can make a big difference!

  7. Albatross says:

    Don’t minimize, compare, problem-solve, or project? Criminy if we all did that about nine conversations out of ten would fall silent.

    Not saying that would be a bad thing though.

Comments are closed.