I try not to put many notes in the blog about illness involving my family, although there is plenty to write about on this subject. I have been involved in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer for my 50 years in medicine and also on a personal basis with my own cancer for 12 years and more recently with my spouse and now my daughter. So, I’m pretty close to an expert on the subject. I have thought about writing some kind of book on the subject and if I did it would be about what cancer patients want to hear and what to say to a cancer patient.
First and foremost they want to hear encouraging words. They want to be greeted with a cheerful voice not some whinny, sorrowful, pitiful moaning that sounds like they are being greeted by someone who is consoling them about impending death.
Most cancer patients like to know that you and others are praying for their recovery and healing. Even the prayer message can get out of hand. My daughter almost became hysterical after a recent message from a church prayer group. She was sent a card by the group that contained an enclosure that was a “ticket to heaven.” The ticket contained a verse of salvation. It had the same effect of being sent a picture of your tombstone. It turns out that this was more like a cruel joke rather than a reassuring prayer.
Support groups can be helpful to the cancer patient but it’s not good to burden the person with stories of death and suffering. Each cancer case is almost unique and swapping stories is frequently not comparing apples to apples. The slightest statement can be misconstrued even though it was well meaning. My daughter was recently told by her oncologist that she had a 95% cure rate. When my daughter repeated this number to a friend the response was, “what about the other 5%.” It temporarily turned a very positive outlook into an imperfect and more dismal prognosis. There are few things in life that are 100%.
It’s not necessary to tell a cancer patient a lie, but hope may be possible even when a situation seems almost hopeless. I had a metastatic lesion to my liver from a colon cancer and when I was in medical school this was truly hopeless. But here I am on the porch 12 years after my original diagnosis, thanks to modern medicine and well meaning prayer. I’ve got my ticket to heaven without some scary reminder of impending death to produce unneeded anxiety. In short it’s best to talk about a good book, a sporting event or even Tiger Wood’s troubles rather than tell a cancer patient how your relative died of cancer or how its better if they switched to another hospital or doctor that is the best in the world because you recommend it.