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I Know You Mean Well But… Enough with the Advice!

By Jennifer Goodman Linn


Every cancer survivor and care-giver has a long list of the things that people said to them that were completely appropriate and absolutely inappropriate while they were dealing with their cancer journey.

It’s easy to call out what I refer to as the “Hall of Fame” moments when people said things that NO ONE in their right mind would ever say were OK. Here are a few to make you laugh:

  • After a friend of mine was devastated because she lost her hair, her mother-in-law wanted to cheer her up and invited her for lunch. The mother-in-law said, “Just meet me at the hair salon where I’m getting a blow out and we can go from there.”
  • After a particularly tough week of a patient getting poor test results every day, a colleague said, “Well at least it’s Friday and you can relax this weekend!” (don’t we wish cancer went away on the weekends!)
  • After my first surgery on New Year’s Eve, someone said to me, “Wow, you’re lucky it went OK because everyone knows all of the good doctors take off for the holidays.”

I do believe that everyone has good intentions and the reason for some of these blunders is that people just don’t feel comfortable saying the one thing that you can never get wrong, “I love you and I am so sorry you have to deal with this.”

While the crazy stories are easy to signal out, what’s harder to decipher are the comments that people make that sound benign from their point of view, but to a patient they are not helpful at all.

Over the past 7 years I have been recording my own stories and I have gotten input from hundreds of patients about what things help them and truly annoy them. It’s amazing for me to see how many common themes emerge.

So, for the next few weeks I am going to share with you my humorous take on the things that people often get wrong and make some suggestions instead. And thank you to Norm Bendell for providing the amazing cartoon depictions of my insights.

So many people, in their quest to be helpful, encourage cancer patients or their caregivers to try new religions, herbal tonics, homeopathic remedies and engage in books that cater to alternative, healing philosophies. This would be fine with two exceptions:

  • Often people are recommending these options for their own justification. Someone sent me a Kabbalah bracelet and I saw them months later and they immediately asked me why I wasn’t wearing the bracelet. Without hesitation I said, “I didn’t realize that your gift came with an obligation attached.”
    You need to be comfortable making a suggesting and leaving it at that. If the person never reads the book you suggest or wears the charm you buy them, you need to be OK with that (and it wouldn’t hurt to mention that when you make the suggestion in the first place).

  • People aren’t thinking about the burden this puts on the patient or caregiver. If you have something that you think might be helpful, make it as easy as possible for the patient to engage with it.
    Rather than say, “you should read this book,” you should buy the book, summarize it in 1-2 pages, and drop that off with a note. Rather than suggest an herbal tonic from Hungary that the patient needs to go searching for, do the research for them and present it in a tight package with a bow. We have enough on our plates without someone adding additional tasks.

Please don’t take this that you can’t give advice or pass along things that you think might truly be helpful. Just make sure that you have done as much work as possible to make it as easy as possible for the patient and make sure that you are objective and not pushing your own agenda.

If you are a cancer patient or a caregiver, please feel free to share your stories with me! And please let me know if this is helpful.

Illustration: Norm Bendell

The opinions expressed in WebMD Second Opinion are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Second Opinion are... Expand


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