What to say to someone with cancer/thoughts on how to be a friend to someone with a serious illness

April 5th, 2013 § 245 comments

IMG_5021For those who wanted to hear my interview on Doctor Radio and weren’t able to listen on Wednesday, here is a link to a downloadable audio file of the one hour show. Thanks to my brother, Mark, for doing this. That show leads directly into today’s discussion.


I always get some heat about posting essays about the stupid things people say to those with cancer.

I know people come here expecting to learn. That’s what I’m trying to do: educate. People inevitably vary in their responses to what people say. After all, responses to books, movies, and comedians are all over the place.

Occasionally people will get defensive and say, “Well, I have said one of those ‘stupid’ things and I meant well.” I am going to take an unpopular stance and say that meaning well isn’t always enough.

Maybe the listener is scared. Maybe they’ve had cancer or a family member with it. Maybe they are just uncomfortable talking about illness and death. It’s important to remember: it’s not about you. It’s about the person with the illness. If you are a friend you will need to get over your discomfort or get out of the way. What you don’t want is for the ill person to have to be consoling the listener or trying to minimize the seriousness of what they’re feeling.

Do not turn it back on you, or when you had cancer, or when your child or mother or 2nd grade teacher did. It’s not necessarily the same. Types of cancer are not the same. Even subtypes of cancer are not the same. Now, I’m not saying you should always avoid interjecting something to let the other person know that you’ve had experience with cancer. But the first thing out of your mouth shouldn’t be to connect it to someone else and what their outcome was, good or bad.

Different diseases cannot be compared. Different cases of the same disease cannot necessarily be compared, either. Chiming in with, “Oh, my second cousin’s boyfriend’s dog walker had breast cancer” doesn’t help a person, especially if it’s followed by “She suffered in pain for a long time and died” (yes, this gets said more often than you can imagine). The other end of the spectrum is, “Oh I know someone who had that. They’re fine now.” (Okay, but some people are not fine… should they be jealous? Feel inadequate?) Someone told me in response to learning I had metastatic breast cancer that his wife “had a bit of that last year.”

If you had a coworker who worked the entire time she had treatment, that’s great. We are happy for her, truly. But that bears no relation to how someone else can handle their surgeries, treatments, and side effects. So while you might think it’s supportive (in your mind you’re saying, “See, I’m being supportive and reassuring her that it might not be as bad as she thinks”) what that person may reasonably hear is, “Wow, if you have to take time off work you are weak, or at least not as strong as my coworker was.”

What would be something better to say to a coworker? How about “Please tell me how I can help you during this time. Is there something at work I can do to make it easier for you? I hope you know I would like to help if I can. If you can’t think of anything now, that’s okay. Just let me know if/when you do. I’ll ask again to make sure you’re getting the help you might need.”

Asking “Has this been a good week or bad week for you?” seems like a good bet to ask someone you might not be best friends with. It shows concern and they can be as detailed as they want in their response.


A few weeks ago someone tweeted to me, “As a cancer survivor myself, I know that half the battle is the mindset. Be determined to defeat cancer and you will!” Then followed that one up with “I meant that if we believe we can win against it, we will.”

Comments about someone’s attitude are definite don’ts. Does that mean those who die every day are responsible for their deaths because they are weak-minded? If it were as easy to defeat cancer as mindset, people would not die of it by the thousands every day.

Similarly, comments about appearance while rampant, can strike the wrong chord. I can’t tell you how many times people find out about my stage 4 diagnosis and say, “But you LOOK just fine!” The two are not always correlated, most especially at the time of diagnosis. This is why many people don’t know they have cancer and are completely taken by surprise. When people tell me “You look great!” I know they mean something nice by it. But the rest of that comment, the dark underbelly, is “You don’t look like you’re dying” or in some ways more insidious, “If you look that good you can’t possibly be that sick/it can’t be that serious.”

Don’t say you know exactly how someone feels if you don’t have evidence to back that up. Being a compassionate person and caring friend does not require personal experience that is identical to what the person is going through. Let me say that again, a different way: in my opinion you don’t need to have had cancer to be a caring friend. It might help you to be a good friend if you have had cancer, but it’s no guarantee. People “do” cancer differently. While the experience might have similarities, it doesn’t mean we will necessarily agree on how to deal with it. Part of what I try to do here is level the playing field. I try to bring you information and advice you can use so that you will know more about helping than you did before.

Don’t tell them that their science-based treatments are bunk and what they really need to be doing is just changing their diet, breathing pure oxygen, or relieving their constipation to be cured of cancer. Do not tell someone who is in the middle of treatment that chemotherapy is a waste of time. You may think your suggestions of supplements/vitamins/tea are harmless, however, there are serious interactions that can dull the effectiveness of chemotherapy and other treatments. Not all lotions are good to use during radiation treatment. Not all vitamins are good additions.


I like what @travisbhartwell tweeted to me: “Mindset changes the days you have, not the number of days you have.”

The worst thing that can happen is that friends disappear. This is happening to me in spades. It may be that they are afraid they’ll say the “wrong” thing and end up being written about. But I think it also has to do with the fact that death and illness make people uncomfortable. I represent their fears. People who should be in touch with me at least every week or two (because that is how often we saw each other before) have just dropped away.

That said, there are so many people in my life who are so wonderful. Who offer to help, who make it easy to accept it. Who send notes or emails of support months after the initial shock. Who keep asking what they can do. Who pointedly give ways they can help and ask if I could use it.


One thing I think is very important is to always say to someone who is ill or has experienced a death in the family: do not write me a thank you note for this. Do not feel the need to answer this email. Do not feel the need to call me back.

If you live near the person ask them, “Would it be helpful if I texted you before I run errands so that I can pick something up for you?” Texting and email help because talking on the phone is almost always too much of an ordeal and/or inconvenient. I have friends who email me at the beginning of the week to say, “I’ll be at the grocery store, the drugstore, and the post office this week. Can I do anything there for you?” Some will text on the spur of the moment, “Running to Costco. Need anything?” These are invaluable offers.

If you have no knowledge of what information you are being told, admit it. People with serious illnesses do not expect you to know everything about their new diagnosis. They are probably learning a lot of information in a short period of time and may not even know the details of their diagnosis and treatment. They don’t expect you to have the knowledge but you need a way to connect. I recommend when someone tells you about a diagnosis you don’t know much/anything about you say, “I don’t know anything about what that diagnosis means. Would you mind telling me about it, and what it means for you?”

How is it affecting your day-to-day life and what part of that can I help you with?

I’m so sorry to hear that.

What is the worst part of this for you and how can I help make that a bit easier for you?

If your friend is dying or has a relative who is, and they refer to the death or how difficult treatment/daily life is, don’t brush it off, dismiss it, or say, “Oh, you’re not going to die. You’ll be fine. It will all be okay. Things will work out.” Saying this to someone with stage 4 cancer comes across as dismissive of the seriousness of their diagnosis.

If the listener says, “Oh, that’s depressing, let’s not talk about dying,” it can isolate the person who is ill, making them feel they should not be thinking about what is a very real concern or outcome. As Julie Klam points out in her book Friendkeeping, acknowledging someone’s wishes should be paramount. She tells the story of her mother and her mother’s friend Patty who was dying of cancer. Patty wanted to give Julie’s mom a pendant. Rather than gratefully accepting it, Julie’s mom insisted Patty would wear it again, that she would get better. Instead, she died a few days later. Years later when recounting the story with regret, Julie’s mom said, “She knew she was dying. It probably would’ve been comforting to her for me to acknowledge that… I was just afraid that she had some small glimmer of hope. I just didn’t know.” I would bet that if that same scenario happened again, Julie’s mom would act differently.

Later in the chapter Julie recounts being a friend to someone who had to terminate a pregnancy. She asks Julie a question that continues to haunt me: “Will anything ever be good again?” It echoes in my mind now: Will anything ever be good again? Will anything ever be good again?

The truth of the matter is that for some it will. For some people, it won’t.

Check in with your friend intermittently. Give her reminders that she is not forgotten even if she is not out in public. I love getting cards or texts or emails that tell me what my friends are up to. As I write this my friend Kathleen texted me to say she was eating at one of our favorite places. “I miss your company” she said. How can you not love that?

I love written notes. I save my favorites. When I’m having a bad day there is something about pulling out a card, seeing handwriting, reading a message. It’s just more personal than seeing it on a screen. Of course texts and emails are great for frequent check-ins, but for a special message? Real paper can’t be beat.

Other winners to me are notes that remind me of a funny experience a friend and I had, a favorite memory. Many people know I love my garden and flowers. They will send me a pretty card and tell me what they saw at the farmer’s market or in their own garden or what they’re looking forward to about Spring. Sometimes they will tell me about being on vacation and how they thought of me when they saw the water or the tropical plants and they remembered a trip I’d blogged about.

Some send a favorite poem or story or memory. I like those. I don’t like religious quotations or cards that focus on people praying for me or hoping for a miracle. That assumes I am a religious person (I am not and I don’t believe in miracles). I think cards should focus on the person— the connection to that person, your friendship, not what types of religious comfort or explanation the writer endorses.

One Twitter friend, Neil Shurley, wrote me a song titled “We Love You, Lisa,” and then made a video with people holding up signs that say those same words. I still watch it. I always cry. It’s one of my favorite things anyone has ever done for me. This, from what most people would term a stranger. Another friend, Nichole, took photographs that people sent her, combined them with poems and sayings and turned them into a photo book for me. When I’m down it’s another thing I reach for to feel support.

Does the person who is ill have children? If so, you can do what one room mom did for me this year: For school events Lizzie always asked if I felt well enough to join on any party or field trip. She offered rides to school performances. When I could not attend, she (and other moms) took photos and videos and sent them to me… without being asked. My friend Zerlina put together a playdate calendar and a dozen moms signed up in rotation to have Tristan over three times a week for playdates for the past six months. This was especially helpful. Sometimes I’ve been well enough to say we would host the playdate here. But knowing there was fun built in with his friends was a relief to me.

Finally, I always love my mother’s suggestion for one of the best questions you can ask in any situation whether it be posed to a friend, a spouse, a child, a coworker. When someone comes to you with a complaint, a problem, or a rant asking the simple question, “Do you just want me to listen or do you want my advice?” is a wonderful way to be supportive. Sometimes a friend just needs to cry and vent, no advice wanted. By asking you will show sensitivity to the distinction. This is what I mean by not needing to have had the same experience to be a good friend. Listening matters. It’s free, and all you have to do is offer (and follow through).

And if you have a serious illness how do you respond when someone asks you how you are? If you don’t want to answer in detail, one suggestion is to say, “There are good days and bad days. Today is a … day.” This response is also a good one after the death of a loved one. If you are having a good day it allows you to acknowledge they’re not all like that. If you’re having a bad day it expresses that you know they won’t all be like that, either.


I think we all like to hear that we matter, that we make a difference, that we are loved. In the end, you can never go wrong by telling (or writing) someone what they mean to you, what you like about them, and what you enjoy most about being with them. This is the essence of friendship to me. Some days you need a serious chat. Some days you need a friend to be silly with. Some days you need a friend to go shopping and have a gossip session with and try to put cancer in the back seat for a few hours. There are many ways to be supportive.

My dear friend Cathy texts me every morning to wish me a good day and asks, “How can I help you today?” I most certainly don’t expect that every friend should do this. But boy, it means a lot that she does. I rarely need something these days. But I will someday. And when I do, I know she’ll be there for me.

I have so many people in my world who care. I know how fortunate I am. I hope that some of these suggestions will be helpful and I am sure you will find others as readers comment on the post. You don’t need to have many things to say… a few good options will do.


I hope you all have a good weekend, we are starting to feel Spring here and boy, does it feel good!


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

June 12th, 2011 § 32 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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