Friday, June 15, 2012

What Not to Say to Someone Who has Cancer

Recently I’ve been praying for and seeking to support some friends who are battling cancer. I discovered on Jon Acuff’s blog a guest post by Tracey Solomon that is spot on regarding what not to say to someone who has cancer. Her comments are very helpful and deserve to be read and passed on to others.

What Not to Say by Tracey Solomon

We totally need a Christian version of What Not To Wear.  Only it should be more holy and less about clothes. It should be called What Not To Say. Since my husband’s diagnosis with prostate cancer this fall, I’ve heard people say a lot of stuff that hasn’t been helpful. Maybe, that’s partly because, for awhile, I had a bad case of Cancer Tourette’s. Cancer Tourette’s is a condition where you randomly blurt out the diagnosis to everyone who asks “How are you?” Including the chick ringing up your Target basket and the 12-year-old boy putting your groceries in a bag. (FYI: 1) He doesn’t know what a prostate is, and 2) is afraid of you, prostates, cancer and your crying. Leave the poor kid alone.

Actually, it’s not always what people say that is hard…it’s how it sounds. Which could be totally a problem with my hearing, and since my husband’s diagnosis, I’ve been hearing things differently. It’s like I hear everything through a crazy morbid mix-master’s cancer filter. I think the world is auto-tuned to upset me. And it does.

But, I’m not the only one. I’ve heard others talk about stuff Christians say when there is a bad diagnosis, so I thought I’d ask Jon if I could give you guys a behind-the-cancer listen to the things we say and how they sound. I gotta be honest: Cancer (and any crummy diagnosis, really) is hard enough without having well-meaning people say things to make it harder.

Things like:

“You gotta stay positive.”

What it sounds like: “If you keep being so negative, you’re going to kill your husband.” (Which I sometimes want to do, but that has nothing to do with cancer, it has everything to do with hormones. Mostly.)

How I want to respond: ”I AM positive. I’m positive that cancer stinks. Also: Thanks. Now I’m afraid that if I’m not positive enough my husband will die. It will be my fault.”

The truth: ”Sometimes I need to get the negative out of the way so I can get to the positive. I’m positive that God will get us through this, even if we don’t like the outcome. Staying positive doesn’t mean living in denial. It means accepting the truth and hoping for the best.”

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

What it sounds like: “Buck up and deal. You can handle this, or God wouldn’t have allowed it.  You should be honored He thinks so highly of you.” (No clue where the term “buck up” came from. Blame the cancer.)

How I want to respond: “God needs to have his head examined. (Does God even have a head?) Or, he thinks way too highly of me. Has he not been paying attention to my immaturity? Maybe he needs bifocals or something.”

The truth: God gives us things we don’t think we can handle and then he works in and through us. (Which is good because otherwise he’d have to recall my kids. And since two are in college, that would be really awkward.) It’s not about US or what he thinks we can handle…. it’s about Him and what he can handle. But cancer still sucks.

“Is there sin in your life?”

Okay so no one has actually said this to me, But I know they say it to others. That, or it’s a Christian urban myth. Have you heard it?

What it sounds like: “Is there sin in your life? If so, sinner! You deserve this!”

How I (would) respond: “Of course there is. Duh. I’m human. Is there sin in your life? Cause, either you lie or I think you just fell into the whole plank vs. splinter in the eye thing which I’m pretty sure is sin and now you probably have cancer, too.” (But, I really hope not, because, like I said, cancer sucks.)

“That’s a good kind of cancer to have.”  Or, “At least they caught it early.”

How it sounds: ”Like you just said: “That’s a good kind of cancer to have. And at least they caught it early.”

A little cancer secret: There is no good kind of cancer. Cancer is BAD, always bad. That’s why we need to cure it. It’s also why we need God to help us through it.

“My _______ had ______ cancer and they’re doing great. (Or they died. Either one.)

I’m really glad your loved one is doing well. Or really sorry they died…. but, right now? This is about me. Let’s talk about me. (If there is ever a time to be selfish, it’s when you’re facing cancer or the cancer diagnosis of a loved one.

The bottom line (s) –

Please don’t:

Minimize: Say things to make the issue smaller than it is. It may make you feel better about the situation, but it makes the people involved feel like they’re crazy.

Spiritualize: Say things that make a physical issue into a spiritual one. Which, while I believe there is a spiritual aspect to everything, exactly what is really hard to tell from a diagnosis.

Traumatize: Now is not the time to share cancer horror stories.

If someone you know is faced with a nasty diagnosis, please…

Listen more. Talk less. Listen to how I feel, instead of telling me how I should feel.

Pray more. Preach less. When I’m afraid, pray with me. Now. Not later.  And really, the cancer center waiting room is not the time to preach or argue doctrine.

Bonus: When someone shares about a recent scary diagnosis, it’s probably not the time to tell them how wonderful your experience with that illness was, or how much you loved it. Or how it made God so real in your life and that you pooped rainbows after treatment. It could be true, but this is probably not the time to share. I may have threatened to stab the next person to do so. In love, of course.  (That has actually happened to me a few times. Except for the pooping rainbows part. I made that up.)

So have Christians said weird things to you when you’ve faced a crisis? What did they say? How did it sound? How did you wish you had responded?  What would have helped?

Final note: Ha! I said “prostate” on SCL! I think that’s a first.

Final, final note: Never confuse “prostate” and “prostrate.” Not the same.

PSA about PSA: Dudes, I don’t care what the government says, get checked your prostate checked. My husband is 45.