Things you shouldn’t do for your friend who has cancer

As a follow-up to last week’s post about things you should do for your friend or loved one who has cancer, I wanted to spend some time discussing a few things that it might be best to avoid.  Of course, everyone is different and your mileage with these tips may vary, but I would say that these are the issues that I’ve had the most trouble with.  It’s important to note that my intention is not to shame or scold, I’m just looking to provide you with some best practices that might help you avoid some awkward moments (or landmines).

1. Try to avoid asking invasive questions.

Even if your friend is comfortable speaking publicly about their health, it’s important to remember that you have no right to information about your friend’s body: their body is their business.  Asking questions about your friend’s ability to perform sexually or whether they’ve lost their pubic hair is incredibly rude and will likely make them feel uncomfortable.  Of course, there are people out there who won’t mind sharing this kind of information; however, in my opinion it’s best to give your friend the opportunity to make that choice for themselves.

When you have any serious medical issues, you give up a lot of your privacy.  When I was in the hospital, for example, I had to answer hundreds of invasive medical questions in front of an entire ward of strangers (and their visitors).  As a result, I’ve become both desensitized to sharing things about myself and also even more guarded about my privacy than I was before I became ill.  I don’t like it when people ask me invasive questions, because I think it’s rude, but if I’m comfortable I don’t mind providing information — particularly if I think it can be helpful.  Let your loved one share what they want to share and realize that your curiosity isn’t important.  As I said last time, this isn’t about you.

2. Try to avoid giving unsolicited advice, particularly if you have no firsthand experience.

This one is a little complicated.  In my experience, we tend to interpret a person’s posting about a problem on social media as a request for advice.  The uncomfortable truth, however, is that sometimes that person is only looking to share their experience and they’re not seeking advice at all.  Sometimes interpreting the difference between those two things is difficult, but in general I believe that it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid dispensing advice when you’re dealing with a topic in which you don’t have any personal expertise or experience.

Don’t tell your friend who has cancer what they should or shouldn’t be eating — oncology teams generally tell cancer patients to eat whatever they can stomach.  Don’t tell them what supplements to take or how they should manage their pain or nausea.  If you’re a survivor or you have another loved one who has cancer, feel free to share what may have worked for you or them in the past, but try to do so in a way that is respectful and polite: what worked for you or your other loved one may not work for the person in question and that’s okay.  It is, of course, fine to respond to a request for suggestions, if your loved one happens to make one.

If you do feel like you have some advice to offer in a given situation, I think it’s important to remember that it is your loved one’s right to follow through with your suggestion or not.  If they thank you for the advice, leave it there and know that they have respectfully considered your input.  In the end, your loved one will do what they believe is best for their mental and physical well-being and the rest isn’t really your business.

3. Do not congratulate them on their weight loss or tell them that cancer is a great diet plan.

In our culture right now, we almost universally see weight loss in a positive light and this is a complete fallacy.  People lose weight for all kinds of reasons and many of them can be negative, such as chronic illness, mental health issues or eating disorders (just to name a few).  If you know that your friend or loved one is suffering from any of these issues, it’s probably best to assume that the weight loss isn’t intentional.  Cancer sufferers, for example, often lose significant amounts of weight due to the cancer itself (lymphomas often cause unintended weight loss) and nausea.  The weight loss that they experience is likely a reminder that they are sick and can’t eat or digest food properly and not something to celebrate.

Of course, it’s possible that your loved one won’t find comments about weight loss offensive — they might even make a joke or two about it themselves.  The most important thing to remember in all of this is that everyone is different.  In order to really support your friend who has cancer let them take the lead.  Try to be as gentle as you can and pay attention to the cues that they give you.  I’ve said this a lot over the past few weeks, but it’s never going to be less true: it’s just not about you.

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