February 21, 2012 in Features

Offering comfort

Cancer diagnosis can elicit painful responses
Catherine Johnston Special to The Spokesman-Review

Q. When I had breast cancer, several people told me about their mothers or sisters or friends who had difficult chemotherapy experiences or who died from their cancer. It was not helpful. Why do people do that?

A. “People respond out of their own fear of cancer and fear of death. Often their comments are a panic reaction,” said Cobie Whitten, a psycho-oncology consultant who works with cancer patients in Olympia.

People may be stunned to learn their friend’s news and their reactions default to what is familiar, instead of what is helpful. Many people still, wrongly, believe that a cancer diagnosis is synonymous with death, Whitten said.

And people may wonder what it means for them. Will they have to be a caregiver? Or will they lose their friend to this awful disease?

They manifest their own discomfort with inappropriate comments, instead of simply saying, “I am sorry this is happening to you.”

When Catherine Johnston confided in a colleague that she was taking several weeks off for cancer treatment, the woman replied, “I have news, too. I’m getting a new job!” Johnston stood up and left the room.

“Our society is remarkably unskilled in its ability to offer comfort,” Whitten said.

Patients can use these experiences as teachable moments and say, “I know you are trying to be helpful, but that is not a helpful thing to say to me,” Whitten said.

While some people tell horror stories, other people may be compulsive, ever-present “helpers.”

Patients should set clear boundaries for extreme helpers as well as for storytellers.

“Let your feelings be your compass,” Whitten said.

A cancer diagnosis provides an opportunity for the patient and friends to share authentic moments. Instead of telling unwanted anecdotes, friends can accompany a cancer patient on her journey, a time for profound intimacy.

“It takes courage, but the payoff is tremendous,” Whitten said.

Q. The son of a friend who lives in another state was sentenced to prison for a sex assault crime. I heard about it indirectly, and I don’t know if my friend feels like talking about it, so I’ve not been in touch. Should I send a card? How do you write a “sympathy” card in this awkward situation?

A. You just do it. When parents “lose” a child to incarceration their grief is made even more complicated by the fact that most friends ignore the tragedy, because it’s such a stigma.

Kathy Haugland, of Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest, manages programs that help released prisoners with their transition back into society. She also worked in the Montana State Prison system for six years.

She told EndNotes that often parents “feel they did something wrong. Which isn’t the case most of the time. They need emotional and sometimes physical support.”

Write the card and be upfront about it, Haugland said. You can say something such as “I heard, and I wanted to confirm, that your son is incarcerated. Is there anything you need while he is serving his sentence?”

Don’t say you understand what your friend is feeling “unless you have had a family member go to prison,” Haugland said.

Saying “I hope they get what they deserve” or “I hope they learn their lesson” isn’t supportive, either.

If you knew the son well, consider writing him a letter in prison.

Haugland pointed out that 95 percent of people incarcerated eventually move back into the community. The more they feel connected to others and supported as human beings (without condoning their crimes in any way) the better they’ll readjust to life after prison.

This is likely one of the hardest losses your friend will ever experience. Be there for her in any way you can, starting with that sympathy card.

Catherine Johnston, a health care professional from Olympia, and Rebecca Nappi, Spokesman-Review features writer, welcome your questions about what to do in times of illness, dying, death and grief. Contact them through their EndNotes blog at www.spokesman.com/ blogs/endnotes.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email