Certain subjects can make us uncomfortable. Hearing of someone diagnosed with cancer is one of them. What do you say? Do you ask questions? Do you acknowledge the diagnosis? Coming up with the answers can be challenging, especially when the diagnosis is mesothelioma. Unlike some cancer patients who lose their hair during treatments, often, the mesothelioma patient looks the same as always.
Expressing concern might not seem like enough, but often it is the kindness that is remembered. Sometimes it is not the words that help a patient, it is just being present and listening to what the patient is going through that is helpful. Although you might want to reassure the patient, saying something like “everything will be ok, because my neighbor had the same cancer and is fine, ” resist the impulse to minimize what the patient is going through. Although your intentions are good, the fact is that everyone’s cancer is different, and your neighbor might have a different type of the same cancer which has a totally different treatment plan. Listen more to what the patient is going through.
I heard this week about a patient who had gone through chemotherapy and had lost her hair. Not wanting to be intrusive, but wanting to express concern, an acquaintance said, “ Whatever you are battling it looks like you are winning. Keep it up!” This approach expressed concern, acknowledged that something was going on, but did not intrude on the patient’s space. It left it up to the patient to share more or not. It struck me as a very kind, positive way to approach anyone who has cancer.
Depending on your relationship, humor can also help. Another patient was telling some good friends that when she saw them next she would not have hair, as she was starting chemotherapy. One friend said to her, “You are long overdue for a new hair style anyway.” The patient repeated the statement, always with a smile, many times to ease others’ discomfort with her temporary hairlessness.
There is no way that is right or wrong. In the words of Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel.”
Acknowledge with respect and kindness, and you will soon forget that you were not comfortable talking about cancer.