Saturday, March 21, 2009

What not to say to a breast cancer patient

What not to say to a breast cancer patient.
This month’s article is not going to be about fitness. I have been asked to write about another subject, cancer. Since, May 2006 I have been dealing with cancer myself. I have had three surgeries, eight rounds of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation and all the side affects that go with these treatments. So, I definitely am an expert on what is truly helpful and what can be hurtful to a person dealing with this disease or any other major health crisis.

People want to be helpful when they hear someone they know is dealing with cancer. What is important is that you be specific with what you are going to be helpful with if you offer help. A lot of people will say “call me if you need anything” even though they may sincerely mean this, most people dealing with a major illness aren’t likely to pick up the phone and ask for help. A better offer would be “I would like to bring dinner over this week to help you out. What day would be good for you?” You could also take the initiative and organize a group of people to bring dinner for an extended period. Connie Goddard did this for me. She had people from Summit Riders bring us dinner for a week after my main surgery. What a great treat that was.

Ask what days you can drive the person to their doctor’s appointments. There are a lot of appointments and having to drive while you are sick from the chemotherapy or just plain tired can be difficult. Do some grocery shopping for the person while you are doing your own. Running errands can be a big help.

Maybe you work and can’t help with cooking or driving. Do you have some other specific knowledge or service you could offer? Teresa Scagliotti CFP, another friend and mountain resident made sure our wills and financial matters were in order before I went in for my surgery. This gave me peace of mind that if something went wrong during the surgery I wouldn’t leave loose ends for others to clean up.

Just sending a card, e-mail or phone call conveying your support is very much appreciated. I have kept all the correspondence I received from people during this time and truly cherish their kind words.

When speaking with someone dealing with a major illness remember they are the same person that they always were and their personality and beliefs haven’t changed. Don’t assume that because they have cancer you should treat them differently. The last thing a person wants is to be defined as a cancer victim. The person has a disease, they aren’t the disease and you can’t catch it from them.

Letting the person talk about how they are feeling, if they want to, will give you insight as to how they are coping emotionally. By being a good listener you will hopefully take more time with your questions and responses to the person. I certainly don’t mind people asking me about how I’m feeling or what treatments are like. The more information I can share with people, if they want to know, may help them in the future.

Having a positive attitude is so important and if you have people around that are negative it can be very harmful. Here are some things you should steer clear of when talking with someone dealing with a major disease.

Don’t bring up your aunt Betty who died 10 years ago and go into detail about all of her suffering or your cousin that had cancer but changed her wicked ways and was cured. Don’t impose your beliefs or negative experiences on the person. This isn’t support and it is not helpful.

Don’t tell them to rest and take time off. The last thing a person needs is time to sit around and dwell on their illness. You are dealing with a person that has their own way of coping with illness and is probably a normal adult with normal intelligence, not a person that needs to be told how they should feel or what they should do.

Don’t compare their illness to some non-medical crisis in your life. My niece Jessica’s husband Glenn died of leukemia 2 ½ years ago leaving her a single parent of three toddlers. An acquaintance of hers compared her divorce, the death of her marriage, to Glenn’s death and actually implied Jessica was better off than she. How self-centered is that!!! It is amazing what can come out of a person’s mouth.

Fear and lack of knowledge seem to drive many of the inappropriate comments people make. One way to avoid this situation is to educate yourself about the person’s illness. There are many websites that offer information in plain English about every disease you can think of. Do some research to find out more information about the person’s specific disease if you don’t know much about it.

No one plans to get cancer or have any other major illness but it happens. Being positive, without being over-the-top cheery, staying in contact and being sensitive to the person’s personality, beliefs and feelings are the keys to being supportive and helpful when someone needs it most.

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