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Friday, March 30, 2012

How to Reach Out When a Patient Says No

By Heather Millar

Letter Writing

One of my dearest friends called a few days ago, sounding upset and confused: A childhood friend of hers has Stage IV, metastatic breast cancer. She has put out the word that, except for her immediate family and very closest friends, she doesn’t want to talk about her disease.

My friend was closest to this woman when they were in grade school together, but they still see each other a few times a year. My friend feels bewildered. She wants to honor her friend’s wishes, but she also has a lot of things she wants to say to this friend.

Just hearing this story made my heart lurch. I understand my friend’s need to express how much this bond has meant to her. I also understand the patient’s need to hold such testimonials at arm’s length.

Stage IV cancer, of course, cannot be cured; it can only be managed. My friend’s friend is playing for time with a husband, a daughter barely into elementary school, parents who are still around, and a large circle of friends. I can’t imagine what that must be like, and I hope I never have to come to that understanding.

This is my guess: This mom, wife, and daughter with limited time does not want to make the rest of her life all about cancer. She is fighting for some semblance of normalcy for her daughter and for the rest of her family. She probably endures continuous treatment—radiation, chemo, or both—to keep the tumors at bay for as long as possible. She likely copes with flagging energy and various side effects; cancer treatment is not for sissies. She has to make choices; save herself for the few who are very closest, most dear.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to be open to gifts, to compliments, to the reactions of others. Sometimes, cancer patients just don’t have that energy. That’s why we don’t always return phone calls or write thank you notes or talk about our cancer.

As I was saying this to my distressed friend, I knew that she already knew these things. I paused, unsure how to help.

Then I remembered how much comfort I received from the letters that my father’s old friends wrote after he died of lung cancer 15 years ago. The letters shared details, memories. They showed me how much my Dad’s life had affected others; how much people cared about him. I saved the letters and still read them from time to time. My father seems to come alive on those pages.

“Why don’t you write the letter you want to write to your friend? Then just send it to her husband, and make it clear that no one, especially your friend, has to read it right away?” I suggested. “That way, you can say what you want to say. Whether your friend reads it or not, it will be a comfort to her family later on. Besides, I’m sure she already knows that you love her.”

What do you think of this solution? What would you do in this situation?

Photo: Photodisc

Posted by: Heather Millar at 2:43 pm

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