"I have cancer."
Your friend or co-worker or loved one or some random stranger just dropped the C-bomb on your lap.
How do you respond?
It has always amazed me how much power we allow the word "cancer" to possess. It immediately causes a reaction in just about everyone and at this point it is one of those words that transcends the linguistic barriers - most people know what it means regardless of their native tongue. So, if you've been hit with that explosive word - how do you respond?
The American Cancer Society recommends simply listening; try to hear and understand how that person is feeling. They also tell you to steer clear of judgment, trying to see any silver lining or attempts to change the way the cancer patient feels or acts.
Essentially, be a listener without an opinion. That's hard to do for most of us. For many we want to apologize, but saying "sorry," for potentially life altering diagnosis seems feeble at best.
Yesterday I spent an hour talking with a woman who was just diagnosed with cancer. She clearly expressed that she had no desire to hear other people apologizing for her condition, nor did she want any special accommodation because of her cancer. Everyone keeps telling her they’re sorry for her either way. She doesn't want your sympathy, she wants to get through it and go on living because she's a strong woman.
Perhaps, some people want you to say "sorry," "sorry to hear that," "sorry, that sucks," "sorry you're going through that," etc. My hope is that you know the person who is telling you their story well enough to gauge their personality and can provide a more robust response.
In my life, I have been conditioned to not say "I'm sorry." The words of my mother echoing in my mind, "You're not sorry! Don't lie..." normally this was in conjunction with me half-heartedly apologizing for not emptying the dishwasher or not folding the towels the way she thought you ought to fold towels. She was right, my teenage self wasn't sorry and didn't care and that "sorry" was a means of appeasing her that never actually succeeded.
That same mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was a teenager and I honestly don't remember if I said sorry or anything worthwhile at all. My recollection was that she too did not seek out sympathy but rather sought out people who would support her in her journey. She's been with those women and part of that community for the last 15 years.
Don't misinterpret my tale - I am apologetic and I certainly do apologize for my actions or nonactions and I feel distress and sympathy for other's misfortunes - but we apologize all the time! Overuse has damned the word "sorry," to the point that the "sorrow" is somehow very superficial and can feel inauthentic. Consider shoppe signs "Sorry, Closed," effectively stops entrance but isn't apologetic. The word has become a default for disappointment.
But, back to the original question… how do you respond?
I asked my husband, who is a chaplain. He says he sometimes apologizes, but tries to avoid it because “sorry” feels defeating both for the person saying it and the recipient. It also feels final – like the conversation has come to a close, when really it should just be beginning. In his work in chaplaincy, he has found that responding to the statement with a silent nod or a surprised ‘oh’ to signify you are listening, and then sitting in silence allows that person to say more if they want to, and more often than not, they have a lot more to say, but seldom have someone to sit and listen. If they don’t continue the conversation on their own, Chris’ recommendation is to follow up with a question:
How are you feeling about that?
What kind of cancer?
Would you like to talk it?
Is there anything I can do for you?
What are your next steps?
Realistically this person has had a bit more time to process the information about their diagnosis and probably has many thoughts on the subject. If asking a question doesn’t seem appropriate then just affirming that you’ve heard what they said is frequently helpful.
I’m here for you.
Wow, that’s a lot; let me know what you need.
Gee, I’m not sure what to say, but you’re not alone.
Shit, that sucks.
I love you, I’m here.
I’ll keep you in my thoughts/prayers.
Either way, try to be as heartfelt and honest as possible. A lot of people avoid interacting with cancer patients because they don’t know what to say. This is incredibly alienating and ignoring someone you care for only creates distance.
Worse than avoidance is jumping in with your own stories – a person who has opened themselves up to you does not want hear about the sad story of your poor aunt Tilly who died from her cancer or you neighbor who you think has the same type of cancer.
Actions speak volumes. People are proud – most won’t ask for help even if they need it. Do things without prompting. Bring meals, brew tea, listen, take the kids for the day, walk the dog or do something to make the day feel normal-ish.
Offer humor, strength, hugs and practical help. Feel the sorrow, but don’t just stay there.