This post is prompted by a fellow patient of mine. When we met for our regular dialysis he gave me an article from The Guardian, written by a journalist who had cancer, and was writing about some of the things that were said to her, both good and bad. We both smiled, because over the years we have all encountered instances of other peoples embarrassment, when talking to us about our illness.
When I was newly diagnosed, I wasn’t sure how to communicate my situation, so I spoke to a very good friend of ours who has been through the process, and the one thing I remember from her was that, ‘people will surprise you’. She said that most people will be brilliant but some, wont! She was absolutely right.
As we know, everyone deals with their illness in different ways. Some don’t want to talk at all, others will only tell close friends and family. I felt that if I was going to be sick and my appearance was going to change dramatically, and I wouldn’t be socialising etc, I needed to tell people and explain what was going on. That way they could understand what was happening.
The only problem with that approach is that we all take in information in different ways, so some people had a problem in understanding. Most people asked if they weren’t sure, but I felt an element of caution from even some of my very best friends. What I hadn’t realised was that I had given them a problem! That was that they weren’t sure what to say or do. It made me feel slightly awkward too,for them.
What I wanted, and am sure most patients are the same, was to be treated as normal, but I got used to the fact that this couldn’t happen for a while. I think what had happened was that I had dealt with my own prognosis, but they also needed time to understand what was happening.
Let’s be honest, we all like to say and do the right things, but how can we know what to say, when something enters our world, that we have very little prior experience of? For example, how can I really talk to someone who is pregnant, about having a baby? I can’t understand how they are feeling, and nor would I suggest such. Also there is a fear of silence in a conversation. People always feel that they have to fill in the gaps, where really silence is acceptable.
‘ I know how you feel ‘ This is always a common response. How can people know how YOU feel?
‘ I fully understand ‘ How can they?
‘ Be positive ‘ No one can make someone feel positive, who isn’t.
‘ Keep fighting ‘ We’re not fighting, just trying to survive.
‘ You’re so brave ‘ Personally, I don’t consider myself to be so. A lot of people have said this to me, to which I say, that I had no choice with the issues I face. If I had gone into a burning building to rescue someone, it would be my choice, therefore I might be described as brave.
The above are just a few examples of common things that people say, I guess more from courtesy than anything else, and always meant with the best intentions.
It is very difficult to generalise about what people would like to hear from you, but I have never been shy when talking to patients, and I have found that most people appreciate an honest approach. If you don’t understand something, let them know. Also I have found that if you really don’t know what to say, say exactly that! It is better than avoiding things altogether.
I have written several times about the feeling of isolation that you have, with a cancer diagnosis, and the fact that some people might then ignore you, can only make that feeling worse! I know that that is the last thing that they would want, but by ignoring you, they are
showing that they don’t know how to deal with the situation. It is borne more out of a lack of knowledge/experience, than anything else.
Talking to people affected by cancer, is not only about what you say, but how you say it! At the end of the day you must remember that we are all human, whether we have a serious illness or not. Just because we are sick, it doesn’t mean that we are different. We don’t necessarily need special rules to engage in communication, maybe just a little more thought than normal!
Can you think of any examples, good/bad of things that people have said? Please feel free to share them, on the comments section below this post.
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