Giving Advice to Someone with Cancer

After my second diagnosis, I got a letter from a dear friend who was concerned about me. The way he framed the letter was so touching, compassionate and endearing. He wanted to pass along some information that he’d found helpful. He started by telling me how much he cared about me. He admitted he was not a doctor and was not giving me medical advice. He gave me permission to take what he was sharing or to dismiss it. He finished by once again affirming his love and support.
(It was as if he'd already read what I'm about to share!)

TRUST ME, that's a very different approach than many of the messages I get from those who have advice for me about my disease, my treatments, my faith, my activities, my attitude, my food...any host of subjects.

"Just eat..."
"Stay away from..."
"Trust God."
"Don't say that!"
"If you will do this..."
"Pray more."
"Drink this concoction."
"Go see this person."

I offer this entry with mixed feelings. I definitely don’t want to stifle people who "only want to help," and are genuinely concerned for my health and well being. That said, allow me to talk about giving advice to a cancer patient. (Yes, I’m giving advice about giving advice!)
This comes from my own experiences, as well as others and based on my research.

There’s a difference in giving advice and giving encouragement.
There’s a difference is giving directives and giving support.

I remember during John Edwards' 2008 Presidential campaign, when his wife Elizabeth announced the return of her cancer. (R.I.P., dear lady. You touched my heart!) She and husband (What a horn dog!) said they were staying in the race. Everyone seemed to have an opinion. And most of those offering their “two cents” were not medical professionals.

As I’ve written in the past, cancer patients often feel completely out of control; the disease and the doctors are running the show, and crucial decisions are being forced on us. The medical team is telling us what to do, where to do, or what needs to be done. It can be overwhelming. And exhausting.

We rarely go to our friends to ask them what we should DO about out cancer; we go to them for support and encouragement because we have cancer. Even though we love and respect our friends, what they think we must do or ought to be doing or should have done is less important to us that knowing they are there for us.
Shoulds, Oughts and Musts are to be expected from our doctors, but can be grueling when coming from our friends.
We don’t need…we don’t want…more obligations.

I remember one dear friend who insisted that I try a “new” treatment which would totally cure my cancer. This “technology” was being suppressed by the medical community, but was completely safe and proven. "You are just a pawn in the hands of the doctors who are using you to make money for the pharmaceutical industry."
While this friend was very earnest and his concern was genuine, I actually felt guilty that I would NOT stop seeing my doctor, and I was NOT interested in this therapy.
But I was concerned my decision to ignore the adamant advice would impact our long friendship, and that created anxiety for me.

Consider this: when you tell us what we should do (e.g., perform this exercise, eat this power food, visualize this, take these pills, try this revolutionary new machine, pray these words) you’ve put pressure on us. Trust me, that is not what we need!

How should we respond?
What if you're telling us something contrary to our doctors?
What if it just doesn’t “ring true” to us?
Do we tell you that we don’t want to do that?
What if we offend you?
If we don’t do it, will you still support us?

Talk about stress!

Now, let me hasten to add: if we ask for your advice, that’s a different issue altogether. But even then, we want your advice…not your demands. When all is said and done, we still have to make the decision. And part of that decision might be not to take your advice/suggestions. Please respect the choices we make, and know that it’s not made lightly…or in spite of your recommendation.

Also, I’m also not talking about those in our lives who will help us make those crucial medical decisions. (e.g., spouse, partner, parent) Of course we want them involved, and we want their counsel. That’s part of our relationship. But in the end, it’s still our body and we have to make the decision.

At this point, I usually get a "What if?" about those occasions when it seems clear the person with cancer is not making good decisions, or not making any decisions. Or worse, has made a decision which you see as wrong. (e.g., discontinuing treatment) For this, there's no easy or universal answer. But here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • Affirm your love and support.
  • Ask permission to share your concerns, or what you're thinking.
  • Learn why they've making this choice. (i.e., Who did they consult? What is the prognosis?)
  • Be honest about your feelings. (e.g., If you are afraid or sad, say it.)
  • Whether you agree or not, the person with cancer makes the decision.
  • Re-affirm your unwavering love and support.

Side Note: That decision may/can change, which is why I recommend your interaction with them be surrounded in love and support. That way, they know you are there for them, and will feel more comfortable discussing new thoughts, re-evaluation, questions or even doubts.

So I close with a simple word of caution if you are thinking of giving advice to your loved one with cancer: think again! Giving advice…particularly when the patient/person is not asking for it…is probably not a good idea, in spite of your genuine concern and best intentions.


Personal P.S. Let me say Thank you! to those who’ve offered me suggestions and recommendations during both of my battles with cancer. I want you to know that I value you for caring enough to come to me with it. I may not agree with the counsel, and I may not implement it, but I can’t think of a single case where I doubted that the advice came from a place of compassion and genuine concern for me. If you read this and think I’m being critical or harsh about your specific suggestion, please know that is not the case; I want this to be about the idea of giving advice in general. No one person’s actions/advice prompted this message.