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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Advice From A Cancer Survivor: Platitudes Don’t Help

Here & Now Guest:

Author Bruce Feiler and his family. (Courtesy Kelly Hike)

Author Bruce Feiler and his family. (Courtesy Kelly Hike)

“You look great,” is one of several clichés we tend to fall back on when speaking to friends and family, who are dealing with severe illnesses. But best-selling author, and cancer survivor, Bruce Feiler says those types of platitudes just aren’t helpful. He recently wrote a column in the New York Times offering advice to people on how people can really help their friends in need.

Feiler says that while “thoughts and prayers” can be comforting, the expression has become tired, and he encourages people to abandon it in favor of something more genuine. As he told Here & Now’s Robin Young, “When all else fails, direct emotion is the most powerful gift you can give a loved one in pain.”


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  • guest

    When my dad was dying from cancer, I hated how people would always tell me about totally un-related cancer survivor stories. I didn’t want to have to carry their pain, and we knew that my dad’s cancer was going to be terminal. It just made me more sad and tired.

  • guest

    When my dad was dying from cancer, I hated how people would always tell me about totally un-related cancer survivor stories. I didn’t want to have to carry their pain, and we knew that my dad’s cancer was going to be terminal. It just made me more sad and tired.

  • guest

    When my dad was dying from cancer, I hated how people would always tell me about totally un-related cancer survivor stories. I didn’t want to have to carry their pain, and we knew that my dad’s cancer was going to be terminal. It just made me more sad and tired.

  • guest

    When my dad was dying from cancer, I hated how people would always tell me about totally un-related cancer survivor stories. I didn’t want to have to carry their pain, and we knew that my dad’s cancer was going to be terminal. It just made me more sad and tired.

  • Abbie Sigmon

    My father passed away from a very rapid and debilitating type of cancer when I was 12.  We knew his time was short, but no one around us believed he would die.  They kept saying “oh, he’ll get better” and “when you’re better, we’ll do this…”  He never got better.  He died 4 months after his diagnosis.  Hearing those words, however, kept us all in denial.  We were supposed to take on final vacation as a family and even when he drifted into a coma, those plane tickets were hanging on the refrigerator. 
    If someone’s diagnosis is grim, have hope, but don’t hang every last wish on that hope.  Have hope, but be realistic.  Denial is painful. 

  • Abbie Sigmon

    My father passed away from a very rapid and debilitating type of cancer when I was 12.  We knew his time was short, but no one around us believed he would die.  They kept saying “oh, he’ll get better” and “when you’re better, we’ll do this…”  He never got better.  He died 4 months after his diagnosis.  Hearing those words, however, kept us all in denial.  We were supposed to take on final vacation as a family and even when he drifted into a coma, those plane tickets were hanging on the refrigerator. 
    If someone’s diagnosis is grim, have hope, but don’t hang every last wish on that hope.  Have hope, but be realistic.  Denial is painful. 

  • Abbie Sigmon

    My father passed away from a very rapid and debilitating type of cancer when I was 12.  We knew his time was short, but no one around us believed he would die.  They kept saying “oh, he’ll get better” and “when you’re better, we’ll do this…”  He never got better.  He died 4 months after his diagnosis.  Hearing those words, however, kept us all in denial.  We were supposed to take on final vacation as a family and even when he drifted into a coma, those plane tickets were hanging on the refrigerator. 
    If someone’s diagnosis is grim, have hope, but don’t hang every last wish on that hope.  Have hope, but be realistic.  Denial is painful. 

  • Abbie Sigmon

    My father passed away from a very rapid and debilitating type of cancer when I was 12.  We knew his time was short, but no one around us believed he would die.  They kept saying “oh, he’ll get better” and “when you’re better, we’ll do this…”  He never got better.  He died 4 months after his diagnosis.  Hearing those words, however, kept us all in denial.  We were supposed to take on final vacation as a family and even when he drifted into a coma, those plane tickets were hanging on the refrigerator. 
    If someone’s diagnosis is grim, have hope, but don’t hang every last wish on that hope.  Have hope, but be realistic.  Denial is painful. 

  • Abbie Sigmon

    My father passed away from a very rapid and debilitating type of cancer when I was 12.  We knew his time was short, but no one around us believed he would die.  They kept saying “oh, he’ll get better” and “when you’re better, we’ll do this…”  He never got better.  He died 4 months after his diagnosis.  Hearing those words, however, kept us all in denial.  We were supposed to take on final vacation as a family and even when he drifted into a coma, those plane tickets were hanging on the refrigerator. 
    If someone’s diagnosis is grim, have hope, but don’t hang every last wish on that hope.  Have hope, but be realistic.  Denial is painful. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1588960017 Ann Brachwitz Perrone

    I get so frustrated when people, usually devout folks, say “Everything works for the best”, or “God has a plan for everything” when something unfair and horrible is unfolding. If there is spiritual comfort to be given through sympathy, let’s not propose that a loving God is dragging somebody through illness or loss or addiction or disaster in order to fulfill some grand plan. If you’re devout and you believe in Heaven, then maybe offer some reassurance that though the body (or house or loved one) is attacked or destroyed the spirit can remain intact and maybe see something better. I’m not sure what else to say, but please stop saying “it’s all for the best”.

  • Mobrienphd

    As a cancer survivor (X2, knock wood) AND someone who’s lost both her mom and brother to the disease, I take offense at the idea that there is an official DO and DON’T list that works for all of us.  Sure, people can be naive or unintentionally negative, but I always take their comments in the well-meaning spirit they are given.  I liked it when people said “You look great” because I tried HARD to look my best even when I felt my worst.  If someone says, “My thoughts and prayers are with you”, what’s wrong with that?  The only thing that got on my nerves was when folks would complain to me about their (very small) problems when I was clearly struggling with many bigger ones.  And the folks who “disappear” when someone has cancer are showing, I feel, their true selfish colors.  Other than that, bring all any/all support!!

    • Ln3

      When a relative of mine was dying from a different illness, all I could do was cry.  I was hopeless, and I felt I shouldn’t put my relative through it.  So I communicated to her through other relatives.  She lived too far away for me to travel there, so I only talked with her on the phone.  Months later I still can’t talk from the tears in my throat.  What do you think? If I had been nearby and could have visited… if I’d gone and cried through the whole visit…  couldn’t have been good for my relative, right?  I feel my tears were selfish, but I couldn’t and still can’t stop them when I think about her.  I’m interested in what you think.  

      • alexis jones

        Ln3 — it would have been fine for you to have visited your relative, for her as well as yourself.  She was going thru a lot more than your displayed sadness and probably would have taught you that it’s ok to be sad and it’s ok to cry.  She may have also taught you that dying and all of its pain and sadness, is part of living and an important part of life.  With respect and yes, with crying, you can still tell her good bye and accept her death as part of your life as well.  

      • Mobrienphd

        My comment was not meant to induce guilt.  Not everyone is able/ready to openly deal or comfort folks with cancer.  You dealt with her the best you could…when I said “disappeared”, I was referring to people who just stop “being there” in any way possible.  A note, a call, an answer left on a machine, an email, a book, a meal, a walk.  ANY way you showed you were thinking of your relative is a start…and it sounds like you were.

  • Sewhidbey

    Here is what was said to me when I had cancer:
    From a local older artist: Gosh, I guess I’m going to outlive you.
    From my ex-husband’s wife (and former friend): You deserve it.

  • Brooke

    I was recently laid off and people keep saying, “You’ll find something. You’re gonna get a great job.” Whether or not that’s true, I absolutely hate hearing it.

  • Ewbar01

    Here is what was said to me when I had brain cancer:

    You HAVEEEE to glad it wasn’t a higher grade because that would mean you’re dead.

    And to my mother:
    What did you do to make your daughter have brain cancer?

  • DDKPK

    Our son has been struggling with leukemia for 2 1/2 years.  My pet peeve is when people tell us to “Be strong” or “Be ____” (fill in the blank).  I don’t know how much stronger we can be, quite frankly.  We have not caved in yet, and have no plans to do so in the future, despite the overwhelming challenges we face.  Maybe they are just saying that to themselves because they fear not being strong enough to handle what we’ve been going through. 

  • Keeley

    Thank you so much for this show, and for the comments on this page.  I am on my way to visit a friend at a Respite House.  I saw him just a few weeks ago, and was told yesterday that he is in Respite with a very short time left here on earth.  I have been going over and over in my mind what to say to him.  This show was so timely and has helped alleviate some of my fear that I might somehow “say the wrong thing”. 

  • Gordobl

    My sister once told me she was sick and tired of people telling her how brave she was as she fought cancer and some horrific effects of the cancer treatment.  For example, an acquaintance said something along the lines of: “Oh, I just couldn’t do it!  I couldn’t go through what you’re going through.  You’re so brave!”  My sister ‘s response was:  “It’s not like I volunteered for this!  It’s not as though God said, ‘Okay, who’s next?’ and I raised my hand and said, ‘Pick me!’.  If you get cancer, you’ll go through it because you won’t have a choice!  It has nothing to do with bravery.”   

  • Jane

    Could we please drop the combative language regarding cancer? All this talk of “fighting” and “battling” (inevitably followed by “she died peacefully”) makes us sound like losers. Death comes to all eventually, and people who face disease along the way, whether or not they die of it, are anything but losers. As Nikki Giovanni says, “You don’t fight cancer, you negotiate with it.” This is why I don’t call myself a survivor. Is my friend Sharon, my friend Ronnie, 18-year-old Josh, 9-year-old Luke, any less a survivor than I am just because they died and I’m still here? Every day we live with cancer, we’re survivors. Nothing can change that, no matter how it ends.

    • Ln3

      Poet Nikki Giovanni has it right. “Negotiating” with cancer is so much better than battling it.  When you negotiate there’s no winning or losing, but with a fight there’s always someone who is identified as the loser.  Thanks for this comment. 

  • Nolanorm

    When I returned to work after my father’s death last year one of my
    co-workers came up to me and said “I am not going to ask how you are doing because I’m sure you’re doing fine.” And this from someone who is trained as a social worker!

  • Arcto

    You sue would feel better if you could just get laid.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TD4ZUVORTDPIP57TD6UQIKCQGM susan

    I like being told I look well because I work at it.  I had a hard time with “This is your last treatment.”  I found each chemo treatment harder than the previous one and the last one is by far the worst.  I also was told I would do well because I.m so strong.  I guess over all I did do well but did not feel so strong and did not want to put up that front.  All and all it has   been a positive experience because no matter what was said it was done with sincerity and kindness.  No one visiting me should worry about offending me.  I am glad for their caring.

    • PS Frog

      You have a very good attitude!

  • Hpr2

    I’m 26 and still recovering from a massive, brainstem stroke I had at 23. The absolute worst thing people LOVE to say to me is “Everything happens for a reason.”

  • Gene

    Cancer, cancer, cancer.  

    My sister has Parkinsons and is unable to function physically . She is going to die of something, sometime; but not soon.  Her mind is completely intact.  What do I say to her tomorrow?

              Gene

    • alexis jones

      Gene, say ‘good morning sister’ and let her know you love her.  Otherwise, treat her as your sister, same as you did before her illness. 

  • Peter

    My 5 year old daughter has brain cancer and just finished radiation and chemotherapy. We have been overwhelmed with support from friends and strangers. I’ve had people say “God will watch over her” and “Jesus loves his little children”. Where was this God three months ago? The same God that can cure but not prevent disease unless you beg him to do it? We are proud Atheists and I wish people would keep their churchy crap to themselves or at least really, really think about what you are saying. I have no problem with people saying they are praying for her or my family but please don’t assume I worship a deity as you do.

  • Aashlock

    This is Here and Now producer Alex Ashlock. Thanks for all these comments. Cancer hits close to home for a lot of us. Having watched my parents suffer and die from it, my advice is just to be there for anyone close to you in that situation. 

    • Keeley

      Alex, you are so right.  Being there and LISTENING, really LISTENING seemed to be the right thing to do for my friend yesterday.  Thank you for producing such a wonderful program.

  • Native_New_Yorker

    Cancer is an on-going battle.  There is no rhyme or reason.  You just get it, then you fight it.  Really good friends bring a smile to your face, be there on the “bad days” and give you love. 

  • Mobrienphd

    Not sure how I feel about this term…”negotiating”…I get the not wanting the battling visual, but…not sure I see this as a deal, either.  What I’d love to hear is a new term for “victim” as in Cancer Victim.  What works for others???

  • Kat

    It absolutely maddens me when people use the terms “fought” &  lost their “battle” it has nothing do to with it, it comes down to a mixture of many things, luck, you could have the best treatment money can buy, you can be mentally strong and still die, it depends on the agression of the cancer, the type of cancer, how fast it is discovered, etc. Saying someone lost a battle against cancer places an assumption that they were weak when this is far from the truth.

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