Saturday, September 26, 2015

What not to say to someone with cancer

Wendy Zukerman
When someone in your life has been diagnosed with cancer it can be difficult to know what to say. Do you talk about your aunt's experience with the disease? Or distract them with a cat video? Dr Kerri Parnell, who's living with cancer, has a few surprising tips for the inevitably sad and potentially awkward conversation.
'Everyone is coming from a good place when they're talking to someone who's got cancer,' says Dr Kerri Parnell, a general practitioner based in Sydney. 'No one's trying to make someone feel uncomfortable.'
But sometimes, people just can't get it right. Amidst over-compensating, trying to be helpful and feeling nervous, friends and family can end up making everyone feel worse.  
If there was some miraculous cure my oncologist would probably be the one to tell me about it, so maybe don’t suggest how I can cure myself.
Parnell has had many such conversations. She was diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 2007. The cancer had spread from an undiagnosed tumour in her breast. Parnell underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Eight years on, she is still battling with the disease. 'This has been a tricky year,' she says.
One of her oncologists described metastatic breast cancer as crossing a river with stepping stones, with each stone representing a different treatment.
'At some stage, you're probably going to run out of stepping stones,' she says. 'Hopefully, there are going to be more and more stones invented as time goes on.'
Here, Parnell gives a few tips on what people should—and should not say—to those diagnosed with cancer.  
What not to say:
Don't mention your cancer story.
If your mother-in-law or aunt was diagnosed with cancer, 'I don't really need to know,' says Parnell. 'It's simply not helpful... Even if it's a good story, I don't want to spend most of my time talking about cancer.'
Don't say 'How are you?'
Obviously, it's fine to ask someone how they are. But if the answer is 'I'm fine', don't proceed to look someone in the eye, grab them by the arm and repeat the question: 'No, really, how are you?'
According to Parnell, it's best to follow the person's lead. If they're not openly engaging in a discussion about their cancer, don't push. 'I think if people want to talk about it, they'll talk about it,' she says.
Don't say 'I'm really tired too'.
When Parnell is asked how she's feeling, sometimes she might reply, 'Look, I'm a bit tired'. A common response? 'Yeah, I'm really tired too'. But, of course, it's not the same tired.
'You're probably not on 17 pills a day, and you probably didn't wake up all night with hot flushes from the medication,' she says. 'They're trying to be empathic, but it's actually distancing.'
Don't recommend 'the carrot juice extract cure'. Or any miracle cures. 
'If there was some miraculous cure, my oncologist would probably be the one to tell me about it, so maybe don't suggest how I can cure myself,' says Parnell.
Don't say 'You must stay positive'.  
Parnell says here's no evidence that staying positive can cure cancer: 'It's a myth.' Meanwhile, telling someone to stay positive can make them feel guilty for not feeling upbeat while struggling with a disease.
What you should say:
Do say 'You're loved'.  
'We all want to be loved,' says Parnell. She recommends showing any expression of love and support to someone diagnosed with cancer. 'Anything that might decrease that distance, rather than increase it,' she says.
Do say 'Are you free for dinner?' 
Parnell says people with a chronic illness often want 'some distraction and discussion'.
Do say 'You are strong' (where appropriate).
For Parnell, when people genuinely tell her that she's strong, it makes her feel that way.  
'Often when you've got cancer you don't feel strong, you feel vulnerable and fragile,' she says. 'Anything that makes you feel strong is one of the best feelings.'
The take-home message, says Parnell, is to follow your friend's lead. If they're not talking about cancer, then you probably shouldn't either.

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