A reaction to Bruce Feiler’s ” ‘You Look Great’ and Other Lies”

June 12th, 2011 § 26 comments

Cancer is not one disease and there is more than one way of coping with a diagnosis. While some patients research every aspect of their illness, treatment, and prognosis, others would rather have their physicians sift through information and chart a particular course of action for them.

While many people with cancer or other illnesses may agree on what they like to hear (or not hear) from friends, family, and acquaintances, Bruce Feiler’s New York Times piece “‘You Look Great’ and Other Lies” falls victim to assuming that just because it is true for Bruce means it’s true for all. While he does use “many” and “most” throughout the piece, his list is prefaced by “Six Things You Should Never Say to a Friend (or Relative or Colleague) Who’s Sick.” If Feiler’s piece were a blogpost I might not feel the need to react in such detail; however, as a highly visible piece, I suspect there are many readers saying to themselves, “I say a lot of those things… was I really that wrong?” All day yesterday my Twitter followers were asking my opinion about the piece; they wondered if he was right.

I recognize that there is a lot of good advice in his piece, and I want to acknowledge how hard it is to write a short article about such an important and personal topic. I think that opening up this subject to a larger discussion may allow readers to see the variation in reactions: remarks are interpreted in a variety of ways by different listeners. Even the same remark may be interpreted as harmless one day and loaded the next; hard and fast rules are unlikely to apply.

Thus far on my blog I have resisted writing rules about what people should and should not say. Readers have forwarded many such lists to me for my opinion.1 At the time I was diagnosed, I was the first of my friends to have cancer; I didn’t have anyone I could ask for advice.

I was often annoyed with the comments people made. I felt some were just silly (“It must be nice to be able to have time to rest in bed during chemo”) while other comments seemed hurtful or downright rude (“Is your cancer what is going kill you?”).2 While I was frequently upset or offended by statements people made, I didn’t articulate a list like Feiler’s. Why? While I reacted negatively to some things people said, I still felt that in most cases their intentions were good. That is, they might have made comments that were not helpful, but they weren’t making them to be hurtful. They might have been nervous, naïve, or clueless, but they weren’t trying to be cruel.

While the hope is that people will think before they speak, saying “these are the things you must not say” will make people even more self-conscious. The danger is that people will do something even worse than the things Feiler mentions: they may remain silent and not offer any help or express any affection at all for fear of saying the wrong thing.

Many people don’t know what to say. It’s wonderful to have some suggestions of what you should say as Feiler does (and I think he’s spot-on with every one of those). The danger of criticizing in harsh terms is that every person you’ve interacted with then feels the need to ask, “Are you talking about me?” At that point you are put in the position of consoling those who should be helping you. Frequently I found myself in the position of comforting others about my own diagnosis or that of one of their relatives. My recommendation is to avoid telling a person with cancer about your friend or relative who either had it and has lived 20 years (implies their fears are unwarranted) or that a person you know died a terrible death (discouraging).

One main criticism of Feiler’s piece is that it makes no distinction of or allowance for social proximity. That is, the expectations we have for what others should say to or do for us varies in relation to how close we are to them. It may be reasonable to expect a spouse or best friend to clean your refrigerator but not for your child’s teacher to do so.

Now, on to more actual details of the piece.3

It’s interesting that Feiler assumes the offer of food is innocuous. He claims food was one of his great helps and implies that this is a safe way to offer help to those in need. I explicitly forbade food to be brought to my house. I didn’t want anyone spending time or money preparing or purchasing food that might not get eaten. One friend reported that while her son was being treated for leukemia, well-wishers sent so many lasagnas that her kids could no longer look at the dish after a few weeks of receiving them. Similarly, smells eminating from food can often be offensive during chemotherapy.

Feiler starts his list of helpful speech and behavior by outlawing the questions, “What can I do to help?” and “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” he tells readers, “Just do something for the patient… Want to be really helpful? Clean out my fridge, replace my light bulbs, unpot my dead plants, change my oil.” Gee, I’d like someone to do those things for me even when I am not sick!

These things are not only unrealistic in most cases (live far away, don’t have a spare key to the house) but also impractical. These sound like suggestions for close family and spouses/partners. Perhaps saying, “Where’s your to do list—I’ll pick something off of that” might be more reasonable. I don’t want anyone in my house, actually, and how can you know what to do unless you ask?

To me, asking “what can I do to help” is not the same to me as “Call if I can do anything.” His point is that it “puts the burden back” on the person who is sick to come up with a way to help. I predict most people have their mental “to do” list available and could reel off a few suggestions to those who would offer. Close friends can just “do” or  insist in a way that others can’t. I do agree with him that being more forceful about helping is the right way to go, just not to the degree he does. Taking children for playdates (phrased as “We’d love to have your child over, please let us/we won’t take no for an answer”) is a lot more likely to receive approval than, “What can I do to help?”

Further, those who are ill may take pride in being able to accomplish a task themselves. I wanted to be able to do small tasts to contribute to taking care of the house. It’s not realistic to think an acquaintance is going to march into your home and scrub your toilet; after all, it’s hard enough to get those who actually make the mess and live there to do it. Arranging for a cleaning service to come might be more helpful. Often it’s easier to allow strangers into the home than friends; and it could be done while the person it at chemo treatment, for example. (with care taken about fumes and smells that might trigger nausea). Offering to do grocery shopping or be available to receive an online grocery delivery might be good, too. There is a whole post I could write about suggestions for how to help a friend.

Feiler also outlaws “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” He writes, “In my experience, some people think about you, which is nice. Others pray for you, which is equally comforting. But the majority of people who say they’re sending ‘thoughts and prayers’ are just falling back on a mindless cliché.”

First, I think this is an extrememly personal reaction. How a person deals with severe illness is highly charged. In my case, I don’t want your prayers under any circumstances. I don’t believe in God and I don’t want you to pray for me. I didn’t tell anyone not to do it; after all, it made them feel that they were doing something for me. However, it also smacked of illogicality; why pray now? The damage is done: I’ve got cancer. I don’t believe that your prayers will make the difference as to whether I live or die from it; after all, I am quite sure that the people who die from cancer every day have people praying for them, too. Feiler assumes again that what is good for him is good for all– not all people with cancer will find prayers comforting. It’s a bit confusing because he also says it’s something not to say; I’m not sure where he really falls on this matter.

Second, when someone says, “My thoughts are with you” (a phrase I use often and am not about to stop) I think it can be nice. When you live far away or don’t know someone well it can an expression said with genuine concern; when said to a close friend or family member it expresses affection while feeling powerless in such a terrible situation. I believe that to be true.

I counsel: empty phrases said without emotional authenticity are likely to fall flat with the recipient. But I think telling people not to say, “I’m thinking of you” is extreme.

I wholeheartedly agree with his #3 (“Did you try that mango colonic I recommended?”), #4 (“Everything will be o.k.”), and #5 (“How are we today?”): double emphasis on numbers 3 and 4.

Then we come to #6 (“You look great”). This is the one the title points to as “a lie.” One major criticism of the piece is that “You look great” is not necessarily a lie (and I believe the compliment most often is true). I think what Feiler is sensitive to is that we have no way of knowing if it is in our particular case that someone is lying or not. Even in the midst of terrible sickness it’s likely the speaker means “considering everything you’ve been through” which can still be an honest compliment.  Also, many people appreciate being told they look great, even if the truth is questionable. Some days it doesn’t take much to lift your spirits. In the piece Jennifer Goodman Linn said, “When people comment on my appearance it reminds me that I don’t look good.” She is convinced she looks bad and doubts the honesty of the comment. Why can’t it be that she does look good? Why isn’t there room to compliment anyone on how they are dealing with things?

As I see it the real core of the problem is that “you look great” might imply that “you can’t be that sick.” Observers are trying to reconcile the disease inside with the appearance outside. When pictures of Gabby Giffords emerged yesterday, for example, everyone including newspapers commented “how great she looks.” I did not. While I thought it, and believe it (I guess Ms. Linn would find that impossible to believe), I didn’t say it because I was not trying to undermine the seriousness of her condition. Just because she looks good doesn’t mean she isn’t terribly affected cognitively and physically by the aftermath of being shot in the head. Just like when your hair grows back after chemo and everyone takes this to mean you are “all better,” serious medical situations can be present even when not visible to outsiders.

I loved when people told me I looked good. I looked sick, of course. But the effort I took to put makeup on or compliments to how I wore a scarf to coordinate with my outfit were nice. On a day I felt sad I always loved a compliment.

The irony is that illnesses that are invisible can be harder to live with. “I know you are sick but you look so healthy” is not helpful. It’s always disconcerting when someone who “looks healthy” is diagnosed with a serious disease or dies suddenly. These situations strike fear in all of us because being healthy makes us feel protected. When someone looks like us but is concealing serious sickness it can make us feel vulnerable– but that is not the patient’s problem. I again revert to the advice that you should say what you honestly believe. I don’t think it’s always a lie and I don’t think it should be on the list of outlawed expressions.

“People reminded me that I had a free ‘No’ clause whenever I needed it,” said one person in Feiler’s piece. My advice: let those who need to use it do so. When a friend got her own diagnosis of breast cancer, she assumed she would easily be able to opt out of being a Girl Scout troop leader during surgery and chemotherapy time. Instead, she was not given a gracious “pass” and no one offered to fill her spot (that would have been one way to really help). Instead, “But you’re still going to be able to be a leader, right?” was the reaction that met her.

I totally agree with the suggestions Feiler makes for things to say (Don’t write me back, I should be going now, Would you like some gossip, and I love you).  I think there are more, but I think he’s got some perfect ones to start a list there.

Elsewhere I’ve asked readers to contribute the strangest/rudest things people said to them when they (or a loved one) had a serious illness. Some of the responses there are definitely statments I would caution people to think twice about saying. I also heard:

“Is it terminal?”

“What’s your prognosis?”

“It could be worse, you know.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“It’s all part of a larger plan.”

“Now that you’ve been through this you’re due for some good things to happen.”

“I’m sure it’s fine/I’m sure it’s nothing” (similar to Feiler’s “Everything will be okay”). And there are many more.

There is an anger that can divide friends and family once a person is diagnosed with an illness. “You just don’t get it” or “You wouldn’t understand” can be a common refrain whether silently or outwardly expressed. The same words spoken by a friend/acquaintance/colleague may be interpreted differently depending on the day or mood of the patient. I quickly learned that physical pain and emotional agony trumped all; I had little patience or care for others when I was hurting. I learned to withdraw during those times or only discuss it with those who did understand. My hypersensitivity was undestandable but not necessarily easy to be around. The desire to be understood is part of how the ill connect, attract, and cling to one another. The fact that most people with a serious illness can rattle off offensive or ineffectual questions or comments made to them means they are important.

Feiler’s piece struck me as one in which his feelings of “you just don’t get it” were overwhelming and raw. While much of the advice is good, in the end I am critical of him for the same reason I didn’t make such a list during treatment: if you go around telling people how what they did was so wrong all the time, and things they should never do, soon enough they won’t say anything for fear of disappointing or offending you. In those cases you may lose people who may have been well-intentioned. Sometimes forgiveness and compassion need to go out from the person who is sick and not just flow to them. I guess I shouldn’t say that will work for everyone, but that’s what works for me.

  1. For those who don’t know my history, here it is in a nutshell: I was diagnosed with hormone receptor positive, BRCA-1 and 2 negative, stage II invasive ductal carcimoma of the breast 4 years ago. I had a double mastectomy with reconstruction, 4 months of chemotherapy, and an oophorectomy eighteen months later. I had 3 children at the time of my diagnosis, the youngest was 7 months old and had his own serious medical condition to deal with. []
  2. While I may use the example of cancer in this post, Feiler and I both are referring to any serious illness. I refer to cancer because that is the most serious of the conditions I have had experience with. Insensitive comments are by no means confined to the diagnosis of cancer. []
  3. While not Feiler’s fault, I’d like to question the title “’You Look Great’ and Other Lies”… what exactly are the other lies mentioned in the piece? []

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§ 26 Responses to A reaction to Bruce Feiler’s ” ‘You Look Great’ and Other Lies”"

  • Cheryl says:

    Lisa,
    I could not have said it better! I often marveled at comments people made (“Oh, you’re here? I heard you were gravely ill”) and hope I have learned from my own experience what to say and what not to say. And as you say, most importantly of all – say something! Be there. My number one phrase of support to anyone going through tough times “You will get through this…” I can’t guarantee that someone will be OK so I don’t say that. And I sure as shit don’t say “cancer (or accidents or another illness) is a gift.”

    Keep up the great writing!
    Be well!

  • Becky says:

    I’ve been around many family and friends with cancer, I’ve had people approach me and say and do many of these things… I think you’re right in that there aren’t really any rules and there shouldn’t be. For me, (caring for my parents) I had this strange need for everyone to continue to behave normally but to acknowledge that there was something difficult and trying going on in my world. It’s the acknowledgement piece that I think people get confused on… how do you continue to treat this person “normally” “as usual” but still acknowledge that something is really rocking their world.
    I’m one who thinks people telling me they’re thinking about me is wonderful — I tell people this a lot, and I mean it. It’s nice and comforting to know that somewhere in this vast world, someone pauses and thinks about you (sending a baked spaghetti over once in a while isn’t so bad either :-) ).
    Lovely response Lisa.
    I think striving to stay connected in positive ways through all the murk is always the best choice… the details will be sorted out along the way. But, staying there in those difficult moments — priceless.

  • Ann Gregory says:

    Upon reflection, one of the things I valued most during treatment and recovery was honesty. For me, having a friend tell me that they didn’t know what to say or how to help was so much kinder than having them say nothing at all. This worked for me because it helped open a line of communication and helped me to ask for help if I needed it. I know this approach isn’t right for everyone, but it suited me. I’m happy you wrote this response piece. There are no absolutes as we’re all so different and a rigid set of rules doesn’t always apply.

  • Erin says:

    Your response reminds me of an essay David Rakoff (who has battled cancer two separate times in his life) has in his book “Half Empty.” In it, he says that while people said lots of silly and insensitive things while he was undergoing treatment, he knew that unless they said something along the lines of, “You deserved to get cancer and I hope you die a long, slow, and painful death from it,” they were probably trying to be comforting and just doing the best they could. It’s an awkward and sometimes unfamiliar situation for most people, and as you point out, most of us have good intentions.

  • Joe Wallace says:

    Lisa, I learn so much from your posts. I think it’s crucial to remember, as you make clear, that not everyone who visits comes from the same place in your life or has the same relationship with you. There can be no “one size fits all” set of rules.

    You write beautifully. What’s more important…you think beautifully. Thank you for this.

  • Mary says:

    Great piece Lisa, I am probably in that group that acknowledges that I don’t know what to say. I usually just treat the person as I always do and listen closely. Most friends know that they can talk to me about anything and often the conversation will come around to it. However, when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I was totally unprepared. I walked into my dad’s room in the hospital one day and and asked, “How you doing dad? I was not expecting him to say simply, “I’m lonely.” That answer totally threw me. I don’t remember where the conversation went from there. I just remember it being very uncomfortable for both of us.

  • Laura W. says:

    After reading the article, I had basically the same reaction as you did. The article struck me as bitter, irritated/angry, and raw. However, I did like his response to “What can I do to help?” which was to make a list of things he’d like people to help out with. Instead of outlawing that question, he should have just made the list in the first place.

  • Hi Lisa,
    I have a few comments to make, based on my experience as the daughter of someone who died from lung cancer (1 month from diagnosis to death) when I was 18. The other is my own encounter with breast cancer. You’ve probably “heard” me tell this story before.

    My mom died on New Year’s Day, 1974. I was in my first year of nursing school and we were on break. She went into the hospital around Thanksgiving and never came home again. She was a single mom and I was alone in the world. (Years later I found I had a half-sister but I didn’t know it then.) I remember walking into the lounge area at school where all my fellow-nursing students were hanging out. Everyone knew and no one said anything to me. They ignored me really. I understood. We were all young and this sort of thing had not happened yet to most of them.

    I was heading into class when a girl I didn’t know well walked up to me and said, “I heard your mom died over the break. How are YOU doing?” She looked right into my eyes and wasn’t afraid to hear anything I had to say. That encounter shaped me as a nurse and as a person who has had to talk to people in treatment and families, both personally and professionally.

    This girl somehow knew that what I needed was for someone to acknowledge that the biggest thing that could happen to me, the loss of a parent at 18 (my mom was 50), had happened. And she wasn’t afraid of me or my answer. It always seems so odd when people dance around the fact of a tragedy, as if you are saying something that the person doesn’t know. I get that people don’t want to upset you by talking about it but being brave enough to honestly ask “How are you doing?” and not be afraid of what comes next was priceless to me. It has to be that look-you-in-the-eye, not the casual water-cooler “How are you?”

    When I had breast cancer, resulting in a double mastectomy and reconstruction, a few years ago (no chemo but multiple complications), people for the most part didn’t say anything that offended me (except some of the doctors–I’ll explain shortly). One woman from my synagogue called me the day before my surgery and said, “what do you need? Do you have pajamas that button in the front? Slippers?” I said no (hadn’t thought of that kind of pajamas) and she said “what size, I’ll drop them off this afternoon.” It was matter-of-fact, no drama, and I loved it.

    I did let people help me with certain things because I feel that it lets them know you trust them enough to be part of your inner support network. People feel so helpless and giving them a job let them feel that they really helped me. Taking the kids can be priceless when you are tired and tired of trying not to look like you feel terrible or scared.

    I also attended a cancer support group (for all kinds of cancer) with my husband, a doctor. We felt odd going at first since WE are usually the ones giving support to others and not the vulnerable ones. That was the smartest thing I did because it was the one place where you could say what you needed to say, laugh, cry, express the fears and feel the support of people who totally got it and were not afraid of you or your illness.

    One of the several complications I had was an infection around one of the expanders. My usual plastic surgeon was away and I had someone else. The issue was whether to take me back to surgery to remove the one expander, heal and start over or try an aggressive antibiotic treatment. I didn’t want to go back to surgery and start the whole process over. The substitute surgeon, while listening to me and my husband discuss it, chimed in with, “well at least you don’t have cancer anymore.” That comment felt like a negation of what I was dealing with right then. I think I said, “WHAT???” and my husband gave him a look of controlled rage and the surgeon shut up. I didn’t have the surgery then, but the antibiotics (which caused me many awful side-effects) didn’t really help and a week later, I had to have the surgery to remove one expander.

    All of us are different, I think. Pray for me if you want (it can’t hurt), just show up and listen more than talk. Take me to the movies or out to lunch when I am up to it so I remember that I am more than my cancer. Gossip is fun because it is a good distraction. Anyway, those are my thoughts.

    Marilyn
    @mpf2011

  • I think one of the kindest things you can do for someone who is seriously ill is to accept them as they are. Assure them that they don’t have to put up a facade with you. Validate their feelings. Let them know that if they want to speak honestly to you they can, because they don’t have to worry about making YOU uncomfortable. Make it clear that you’re not going anywhere.

  • denise says:

    Lisa, my friend, this piece is powerful. After reading this, I’m reminded of the me BEFORE personal tragedy struck our family. I never knew what to say, how to say it, worried about how what I said would affect the person who was suffering. After losing a nephew, and a close grandmother, I learned from those who had walked the path before me.

    Now, I just talk and ask and tell any friend that if I’m making them uncomfortable, they can, at any time, opt-out. Most recently (and I think I already told you this story), I learned a new friend has brain cancer. The next time I saw her I had so many questions and I apologized–and she stopped me. She was so grateful that I asked.

    Love the work you’re doing here–helping all of us. xoxo

  • Lisa,
    Great post here and I find myself agreeing with most of what you said. I especially like your final statement that says forgiveness and compassion need to flow out from the person who is sick. Sometimes people really are clueless and mean well. Also, I so agree, I would never really want friends to come and clean my bathroom for instance; it just seems too personal a task to ask them to do. I do think it’s just fine to tell certain people specific things you’d really appreciate them doing, if it works for their schedule and yours. Finally, I think it’s great you haven’t ever made a list of things to not say. That’s admirable. I haven’t done that yet either, although I have been thinking about it. I think the worst thing said to my husband after my bilateral mastectomy was a question from a neighbor asking, “Well, did they have to take them both off?” My husband was livid. We laughed about it later. Great post.

    Hope you’ll stop by Nancy’s Point sometime as I blog about breast cancer and loss too. Here’s a link in case your interested.
    http://nancyspoint.com/whats-wrong-with-a-survivors-badge/

  • Bonnie West says:

    Thank you for your wise and welcomed words. As for things people say….
    When my mother was in the hospital just after the doctor had told her she had cancer… ..a nurse, who waited until the doctor left the room, came in and said to my mother, “You have the worst cancer, the fastest moving cancer, and I think you should know.” My sweet mother looked straight at her and said, “Are you trying to cheer me up?”

  • joannemfirth says:

    Tremendous reply to the article. I’ve thought a lot about both pieces. I wanted to acknowledge to you, Lisa, that I read it, and wish I had some input on this subject. It all seems so foreign to me, looking back on the 8 1/2 months since I was diagnosed. I simply can’t relate as the people in my physical life were of the ” they may remain silent and not offer any help or express any affection at all for fear of saying the wrong thing.” group.

    I can not say enough about the internet community, though, and encountered very few distressing remarks. I felt that any acknowledgment was with good intentions. On the other hand, despite trying to organize physical support at the onset of my diagnosis, it all seemed to fall apart. Family, friends, community, have all been silent and unavailable. This is difficult for me to discuss, as I have been in the process of trying to come to terms with a group of people, who have simply chosen to take a very passive approach to my getting ill.

    If I could pick one phase that I would never want to hear again, it would be, “Oh, I asked so and so how you have been doing?” Generally said in a surprise encounter with someone I have not seen in a while. There is no response to that, in my opinion. It angers me to no end. What that statement says to me, is that it was more convenient to ask someone how I was, than to pick up the phone or drop by. A pet peeve is for my personal issues to be discussed by anyone other than myself. It’s all gossip in a 3rd party situation, especially if the fact that someone did ask about me, never got back to me in the first place.

    All in all, from my perspective, anything is better than nothing. Nothing has been a long, distressing, and very confusing time. I even received an e-mail from a sibling asking ME to forgive him for not personally getting involved. I truly don’t know if I have the capacity to forgive him. His excuse had much to do with the fact that our parents had gotten ill, and he had yet learned how to cope with that. His combining my illness, with his unresolved grief is something I have no control over, nor do I want to add to his suffering. We have remained out of contact.

    I have longed for someone to come to my home with a meal, to help with some housework, or to just sit and have a cup of tea with me. The days on end, especially during chemo, when the phone never rang, the emotional pain was almost as bad as the physical. So as not to sound like I’m whining, there have been rides to appointments, take-out food brought home during time I wasn’t cooking, and a very dear sister-in-law who was kind enough to drop by in the beginning, as well as being on the other end of the phone, when I needed some family. There have been other gestures that were appreciated beyond measure. You know that the little white cap you sent me got me all the way through chemo, with all the courage and strength I needed to have.

    So yes, this all seems foreign to me, excluding my on-line friends, whom I do not know where I would be now if it were not for them. At any rate, if I had one thing to pass on from my experience, I would encourage people to just do or something, even if it puts them at risk for doing or saying it the wrong way. Guidelines and education are imperative, I believe, so that all needs can get met without too much awkwardness or fear about what to do.

    Thank you for this post. For helping others know what to do and say. Anyone struggling with an illness or with a loved one or friend who is going through one should read both pieces. I hope the author of the original piece appreciates your very educated and informative reply. I learned a lot from it, and understand more now about what to do if someone I care about becomes ill.

  • Thank you, Lisa:)

    Beautifully said. I underscore the thought that one size does not fit all. There have been times I’ve hugged a crying woman, who was terrorized by her diagnosis, and assured her that “it will be ok.” Do I say that to someone who’s recently been diagnosed with a recurrence? Absolutely not.

    I think when we start repeating the phrases that a writer (whether it’s Feiler, you or me) says is “what to say” we begin to lose our ability to connect and be human.

    And you know, it’s weird, but this just occurred to me. Your ideas were new. His really weren’t at all.

    hugs,
    Jody

  • Lindsey says:

    I remember talking to you in person about this very question, and being struck by your thoughtful, practical advice. I haven’t forgotten what you said, and I’ve already had the opportunity to put it into practice. Thank you for your measured, careful, but honest response to Feiler’s piece. Have I mentioned how grateful I am that you’re out there? xoxo

  • Shari says:

    Another informative and very thought provoking piece, Lisa. Thank you :)

  • John Harris says:

    First, good post that really “level sets” on the question of what to say. People often just don’t know what to say or do and by replying with “our thoughts are with you” or other cliches, is the same as replying with “just fine” when someone asks “how are you” even though your day might be the worst ever.

    I know this is not a debate about the existence of God, but as a cancer survivor, I can’t resist since you mentioned it in your post! You say, “why pray now? The damage is done.” You note that this is illogical. Well, I guess if you don’t believe in God then why pray at any time during life, whether before or after bad news! But it’s illogical to call out the time of the prayer — if there is no God, then prayer itself is illogical.

    Then you write: “.. the people who die from cancer every day have people praying for them, too.” Again, illogical. I think there is this “theme” in your thought here that if something bad happens, there is no God. Or if someone prays and doesn’t get what they ask for, then there is no God.

    But maybe that’s not your intent. Personally, I never felt closer to God than during my nearly 2 year battle with cancer. Despite being stage IV and a reoccurence less than a year after chemotherapy, I’m cancer-free and a God believer. Had I been on my death bed last year, I still would have been a God believer. http://www.fightstonefight.com.

    • Hi John… in short, I don’t believe prayer has a direct effect on what happens to a person. It’s not about if something bad happens to them or not. I don’t think good things happen to people because they pray (or don’t). I never believed in God before cancer, and I didn’t ask “why?” or attriubute my suffering to some “larger plan.”

      The reason I brought it up in the post is because one of the things that might be upsetting to a cancer survivor is having his/her pain explained away by a religious cause. I only wanted to caution believers that they should not automatically assume that the listener shares their religious beliefs and explanations.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  • Stephanie Harper says:

    I am a certified hospice nurse, and have spent some years working in home health as well. Before nursing school I was the caregiver for my mother-in-law when she was dying of colon cancer. This experience informed my choice of specialty and also my interactions with the families I serve. The worst thing we heard when I was caring for Charlotte was nothing. Her best friend for years stopped calling or visiting, riddled by guilt, but “can’t stand to see her like this”. It was devastating. The second worst was the work acquaintance who called to express her concern that Charlotte was going to burn in hell for eternity because she was not a Christian like the caller. Seriously.
    Our one negative interaction with the medical community was the person who popped into the exam room at the doctor’s office and asked “are you the breast?”. Charlotte answered “no, I am The Colon”. You could hear the capital letters :)
    After years of working with very ill and terminal folks and their families, the best thing I can advise nurses or neighbors to do is shut up and listen. Ask what someone needs and then respect it. I loved the comment above about the classmate who asked the young woman who had just lost her mom “How are You?” and looked right into her eyes. Opening yourself to truly hear someone else is powerful stuff, and being available to risk feeling their pain is a generous gift – IF they want to share it.
    I advise families to make a list, and to give jobs to friends and family who offer help. It makes everybody feel better.
    But I love that you point out the most important thing – one size does not fit all. Everybody has different needs, but you will never know what they are if you don’t ask. And by asking you risk witnessing someone else’s pain, or anger, or fear. Which is true friendship. And a bit of laughter can help too!

  • […] I read this amazingly thoughtful post by Lisa Bonchek Adams about a list that appeared in the New York Times of what not to say to […]

  • Laura says:

    what a great post -thank you for sharing your thoughts

  • […] seems to have hit a nerve. More than 160 readers responded with their own experience and insights. An especially thoughtful reaction came from Lisa Bonchek Adams, a blogger who has been on the front lines of breast cancer. The […]

    • Linda says:

      I have stage III lung cancer I’ve went through Chemo, radiation, and cyberknife surgery and go back in to get checked 11/11/11 for a PET scan to see if my tumor is gone or what’s going on with my life. I worked about 3 years ago with a younger woman then myself that died from Liver Cancer. She had been to the Chicago Cancer Care Treatment Center and when she came by to visit friends from work I saw her and stated” _______you look so good, really just like a model” I wasn’t lying she did look great had lost wait had a new short hair cut do to her chemo treatment and her hair growing back in. She said thank you but some how I felt from her she didn’t really believe or like the comment that I made. Only now do I understand that when you are dressed and looking healthy and normal it is hard for the rest of the world to see the spiritual, physical, fatiguing, and sometimes overwhelming treatments the persons poor body has incurred. Looking back if I could see her I would just walk up to her and tell her I Love her and hope all is going all right with her. Looks can lie words of caring should be just that! I’ve survived long enough at this point that I believe my family doesn’t even think my cancer is real and don’t really believe they want to talk about it any more. I often feel quite alone. I talk to God and play Like a feel fine alot. There are a couple of people I can tell the truth to that really listen. That helps me keep sane! Many people (even family) need you to lie so that they can cope with day by day life. I silently think God to be alive each and every day and wish my grown children would visit me more often while I’m still up to seeing them. They are so busy working that I don’t get offers to visit even though now that I draw disability I so much want to just look at them more often.

  • LindaKR says:

    Just ran across this article…and thanks. It put a different spin on some of the comments that annoyed me when I was in active treatment.

  • jennine says:

    I found you last night via a RT. Spent hours into the morning reading and felt compelled to respond. I chose this article because there were several issues that hit home. First, I have a sister-in-law who had brain surgery for non-malignant meningiomas a couple of years ago. I have been playing Pollyanna with her since her diagnosis, during and after invasive and life-changing brain surgery and most recently upon her discovery in her last MRI that she has another one. My most recent “encouragement” has included things like “thank goodness it’s small” So what if it’s by her brain stem, so what if all (this would be 3) of her brain tumors are non-malignant (so far). I have encouraged her to be positive, to not let tomorrow ruin today, etc. etc. She wants to obsess about what this means to her and grieve. Her daughters and I are having trouble with that. What I believe I learned last night is that we are wrong. We are having trouble dealing with her condition, her emotions, and our own fear. We don’t want to deal with it and it would just be so much easier if she would just at least pretend that she doesn’t think about all the awful possibilities almost all day every day. As of right now I’m going to stop being such a clueless cheer leader. Unless of course she asks that of me. I am going to ask her how she is feeling and let her actually tell me without jumping in to tell her why she shouldn’t feel how she’s feeling, Mea culpa, Peg.

    Second, a word about prayer. You don’t know me so you have no idea how ironic it is that I would decide to give an opinion on prayer. I have described myself as a hopeful agnostic for most of my life, but recently have been moving to the side of maybe I believe in a God. I do not, however, believe in a God who randomly grants the pleas of some and ignors other. Have you ever seen or read Steambath? That God scares me. I would like to believe in a God who knows that the human condition is fraught with grief, tragedy, hope and happiness, and is a sounding board for we mortals. A blog to go to, if you will, to lay our hopes, dreams, fear before and receive some comfort for having unburdened ourselves. I had the uncomfortable experience recently listenting to a prayer for a woman diagnosed with extensive, inoperable cancer, and the Pastor was directing God to heal her part by part. It went on for a long time and included all body parts. Very disturbing, as I, like you, don’t think that a God is going to snap his fingers and say, yes, today I’m taking direction from you. She’s healed. Instead, she will probably die and people will remember that prayer and wonder. My hesitant prayers these days are the unburbening I described, as well as a plea for some strength, some comfort, the ability to have the right words to lighten someone else’s burdens. Obviously as to my sister-in-law, I wasn’t receiving good messaging. But, who knows, maybe he led me here.

    So now I am officially thinking of you and forgive me but I will probably add you to my hesitant prayers. Not for healing but for some comfort if it is possible and strength.

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