What NOT to say

foot-in-mouthCancer is a scary topic and it’s hard to know what to say to someone who has it. I admire people who’ve taken the time to ask me questions, share some encouragement, and speak up even when it’s awkward. I’ve been overwhelmingly encouraged by the words of so many. It’s understandable that some people will simply want to avoid the topic, but there will likely be one or two who plunge right in with both feet in their mouths! For the most part, I’ve had very supportive and helpful things said to me, but here are a few things I’ve heard that you might want to avoid…

I know how you must feel.

Everyone’s experience is different. Most of us will know someone who has cancer, either now or previously, and we may have learned a lot from them. But it’s impossible to know how each person is handling it, or to understand their feelings, emotions, and thoughts. I’d suggest it’s far more helpful to ask how the person is feeling and then respond to what they are willing to share.

So how long have you got?

This is a brave question, but it’s kind of blunt, isn’t it! The truth is no one but God really knows. If the doctors have given a likely prognosis, it is simply that – likely, not guaranteed. We want to be in control and know how long we or others have to live, but it’s presumptuous to think that we can know the future. What’s more, if the doctors have warned that the patient does not have long to live, I doubt it will be encouraging to focus in on this.

Yeah, I had a friend/relative with cancer and they died…

It’s common when hearing of another’s experience to springboard into speaking of our own. I’ve heard (and participated in) some conversations that bounce backwards and forwards, with each person talking about their own stuff, without either acknowledging or engaging with what the other is saying. And besides, just because you know someone who’s died of cancer, it doesn’t mean that I will be encouraged to hear this!

Yeah, I had a friend/relative with cancer and they’re now completely healed…

Nor will it necessarily encourage me to keep hearing stories of remission, survival, wonder treatments, or miraculous healings. As I’ve said, everyone’s experience will be different. Even two people with the same cancer and receiving the same treatment will experience a different journey and have different outcomes. Having said this, I have found it helpful to hear words of empathy from those who are well experienced with the impact of cancer. It’s about engaging with one another, rather than just trading stories!

You’ll be right.

I might not be. What do you know, that I don’t? Positive thinking needs reason and substance behind it. Platitudes and blind optimism don’t offer much encouragement.

So what do you do with all your time?

People who are chronically ill often struggle with their lack of productivity. If they’ve previously been active, employed, and busy, then they could hear such a question as a criticism or judgment. While the question may be intended as a simple enquiry, it may induce grief and longing for better times.

I know God will heal you.

Do you really? How do you know? We need to be very careful about presuming to speak the will of God. A number of people have told me this already and, while I’m sure they are well intentioned, I’m a little suspicious. God hasn’t said anything specifically to me about it. While I pray that he will heal me, and I would love you to join in this prayer, I believe that God wants me to trust him whatever he has planned.

Let me say as I finish, that I haven’t written this to shut people up! It’s so important we talk with each other. I’m so grateful that people care enough to speak with me. It often takes real courage. Most people are keen to be encouraging and I want to express my appreciation. My prayer is that these words of mine will help us all to better support others who are are struggling. I recommend reading through the Book of Proverbs in the Bible which has many wise words to say about how we speak with one another. Try these:

12:18  The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

16:24  Gracious words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

(first published in macarisms.com on 20/8/12)

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