Kindness in Chaos: 12 Things to Avoid When Someone Tells You They Have Cancer

heart lightning  "If you look closely, you may find 
                  God's Heart--even as lightning 
                  strikes in the darkest places."

When my doctor’s phone number showed up in Caller ID after a week of medical tests, I felt relieved. “Finally, she’s calling to give me a good report and I’ll get on with life.” Instead three words slammed into my optimism, “You have cancer.” Knees buckled, immediate tears stung my cheeks. Every word that followed sank into a black-hole-like echo of my doctor’s previous statement. Relief melted into gasps. Struggling to catch what breath remained in me, I felt as if someone ripped every ounce of air from my lungs, collapsing them.

Picture a hot air balloon flopping on the ground at the conclusion of a windy festival.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis shocked my system and ripped my heart. As healthy as I’ve always been, I could not have been less prepared for the news. Disconnecting the call, I’ve never felt more alone in my life. Tonto had Silver. Captain Kirk had Spock. Xena, Warrior Princess had Gabrielle. I sensed I faced a journey too turbulent to travel solo. Like Moses with Aaron and Hur I needed someone to hold me up. I ached for connection with people who love me. I reached out carefully to those closest to me. But with nearly every conversation, I grew more discouraged and less willing to risk vulnerability.

Imagine confiding heart-piercing news with persons you care for only to hear them launch into platitudes. Or stories. Or comparisons. Or false cheerfulness. Or remedies. Or advice. The insensitivity of some people—even those with the best of intentions—staggers the imagination. What one mistakenly considers support, bonding, or encouragement, a cancer patient interprets as dismissiveness. We disclosed to you what likely amounts to the hardest reality of our life and in your eagerness to soothe (Us? Or yourself?), you changed the subject. Or at least the focus of the subject.

God forbid anyone you love ever utters the statement to you, “I have cancer.” But in case those words one day assault your ears, understand that whatever happens or is spoken in the first few moments of such a disclosure could linger in your relationship indefinitely. With that, please keep the following in mind.

(A disclaimer may be appropriate: The following is offered in a sincere desire to bring Kindness to Chaos. I do not profess to speak for everyone with cancer. Even so, please at least consider that these avoidances might possibly be universal.)

  1. Don’t tell you own story. If you survived cancer, at some point your story may be invited into the conversation but until then keep it to yourself. As a matter of fact, don’t do anything that makes the situation about you. It isn’t.
  2. Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. Every tumor is different (and not all cancers are tumors). Likewise every individual brings to a cancer diagnosis our own set of life struggles & challenges uniquely impacting our cancer journey. Same diagnosis as you doesn’t equal same experience. Ever. Now go back and read #1 again for good measure.
  3. Don’t give advice. Not home remedies. Not nutritional suggestions. Not even a book on meditation or the phone number of your yoga instructor. When we brave pouring out our heart to you, we are most likely in shock or at the very least, still processing the news. Your advice comes out sounding like Charlie Brown’s school teacher… “WaaWaa. Waa. WaaWaaWaa.”
  4. Don’t regale us with stories. Especially about someone else you know who had cancer. Not a relative. Not an old buddy. Especially not your dog. We may be too kind to tell you in that moment but we honestly don’t want to hear other people’s stories. 
  5. Don’t ask questions about specifics of the cancer. We will tell you what we want you to know. Listen. Even when we pause. Keep listening. Silence won’t kill you. If you must comment, muster a sincere, “I’m so sorry.” Or “That really sucks.” Then listen some more.
  6. Don’t blame. This shouldn’t even have to be stated. But sadly, people do this. The healthier-than-thou individual feels a need to boast that HE never smoked, or ate junk food, or missed a single day at the gym in his entire lifetime since Toddler Gymboree. Shaming someone with cancer? Shame on YOU.
  7. Don’t blurt out trivial responses. “It’s going to be okay.” We understand that you’re trying to be encouraging, but you don’t KNOW that it’s going to be okay. And even if the situation DOES turn out okay eventually, at this moment of disclosure life is not okay. This moment is grueling.  Don’t dismiss our pain to make yourself feel better. If you stuff the sorrow of this occasion, chances are we will too. And in that case, neither of us is healthy.
  8. Don’t misrepresent Scripture. “God must really have a lot of confidence in you because the Bible says He won’t give you more than you can bear.” This may not be the best time to break it to you but the Bible says no such nonsense. Have you read about Job? Or Paul? Or Steven? Call me quirky, but I think losing all your children in one day, being boiled in oil or stoned to death qualifies as more than a person can bear.
  9. Don’t ask, “What do you need?” While scratching the surface of helpfulness, this question contributes to confusion. The truth is, we don’t know what we need. Not really. We can barely wrap our mind around the whirlwind of treatment details and the decisions looming in the days ahead. Please don’t compound the mental chaos. A more appropriate question may be, “Who is helping coordinate your care so I may arrange to drive you to a doctor appointment? Or bring you a meal? Or do a load of laundry? Or clean your bathroom?” Offer one specific way you may contribute.  Then deliver on the commitment.
  10. Don’t be afraid to cry with us. Recognize that a first conversation with someone sharing cancer news is sacred. We’re hoping you’ll hear our heart breaking through our words. We may silently search your eyes for compassion. We may secretly wish you’d wrap your arms around us and hold us as we cry. Even so, we’re probably trying to be tough for your sake when inside our rock wall lies in pebbles and rubble. “May I give you a hug?” could go a long way to communicate sincere sorrow for this situation. And for crying out loud, if you’re going to hug, make it a REAL one. Even if we start to shake. Or cry. If that happens, we’re probably overdue for tears. Hold on tighter and encourage the tears to flow.
  11. Don’t simply make prayer promises. “You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers.” Future thoughts and prayers are wonderful. But if you’re a spiritual person, PRAY right then and there. At least ask, “May I pray with you?” Then keep it brief but encouraging. If we truly believe Prayer Changes Things, why don’t we pray more often?
  12. Don’t focus every subsequent conversation on cancer. If we told you we have cancer, it’s likely because a meaningful tie already exists. Continue the rhythm of the relationship or friendship by talking about things we’ve always talked about, share the same things we’ve always shared, and engage in the activities we’ve previously enjoyed together (to the extent physically possible).

Cancer sucks. Don’t let your reaction to cancer news amplify the suck. Kindness matters. Especially in the chaos of a cancer diagnosis.

Please share these tips with friends and loved ones. The truth is, we live in a broken world and bad things happen everyday. These tips could apply, not simply to a cancer diagnosis, but to any tough news someone discloses to you. Keep those moments sacred and you’ll preserve a dear friendship through what will likely be a very difficult journey.

DiAnna Steele is a writer, speaker, and a cancer patient, currently trusting God to give her wisdom and courage for the battle ahead. She is grateful for your prayers and support as outlined above. Otherwise, she counts on your silence. www.diannasteele.com 


							

To Give is To Love

We can learn much from watching how others express love, who they chose to love and the motives behind their love.

The world tosses around the word “Love” to fit all kinds of scenarios. I love my dog. I love peppermint chocolate chip ice cream. I love a drive through Colorado mountains on a sunny day. I love the sound of a rushing river. I love my old fuzzy slippers and a fire in winter. I love my job. I love my kids. I love my family. I love Jesus. The possibilities are endless. But only a few of those represent opportunities for real love. And of those few, all are a choice that I make. Or not.

Love is a decision followed by action. 

In studying Old Testament words for love, I discovered, “AHAVA” which translates “I give”.

When we love, we give. When we give, we love. Simple. But not always easy.

We love by giving what others need, not what we want to give. It’s easy for me to give hugs because I enjoy getting hugs in return. But what if the person I’m hugging really needs space and an encouraging word? Am I willing to take the time to learn what makes others feel loved and then give them what they need?

So much of what passes as love is based in selfish desires to get something in return. Only when we give, expecting nothing in return do we truly love.

John 3:16 begins, “For God so LOVED the world, He GAVE…” (New Testament) Herein is the epitome of Love. Sacrificial giving, Selfless. No strings attached.

Giving doesn’t have to be extravagant but it will cost you something. Time. Emotion. Energy. Sleep. Tears. Sweat. We give when we take time to play catch with a son, when we wait up in wee hours of the night for a daughter to return home, when we listen to the heart of a friend, when we walk hand-in-hand with a sweetheart. We give when we pray for another or sit beside a hurting friend in silence. We give when we affirm and encourage someone. We give when we demonstrate respect even to those who don’t deserve it. We give by showing up and digging in. We give by serving even in personal exhaustion. And in all this giving, we are loving.

What will you give today? Or in essence, How will you choose to Love today? On my birthday I wanted to give you this gift, this reminder that to give is to love. I hope you’ll share this with someone you love and ask them, “How may I love you better?” Ask. And be prepared to give...

 

The Grey Fray

Are you as sick of hearing about 50 Shades of Grey as I am? Plenty of people much more influential than I have articulated the damage this movie inflicts on society in general and women in particular. I swore I wouldn’t contribute to the publicity, albeit minimally, by writing about the objectionable story-line.

But two things altered my decision not to jump into the Grey fray, both related to a slightly different perspective.

  • My experiences in nearly a decade of volunteering at Women’s Crisis Centers.
  • My concern for the potential of an almost predictable spike in sex crimes involving unwanted male domination as a direct result of the movie.

As a Crisis Intervention Counselor, I repeatedly witnessed firsthand devastation of women’s lives when “NO” is ignored and the sanctity of her most private space is violated. Many survivors consider the experience worse than if they had been murdered. Her body lives but her soul feels dead.

Now, after 50 Shades of Tinseltown tripe masquerading as entertainment, I’m envisioning a surge in headlines implicating men who didn’t believe a woman’s “NO” or who trampled her regardless.  

Personal discomfort aside, these two things compel me to speak up.

Someone please help me understand how millions of women sat in a movie theatre sighing and cheering as actors smeared lines of decency, not to mention laws outlining criminality, in the name of romance and passion.  What happened to the mass media indignation aimed at a Hollywood star a few short weeks ago? Women who screamed loudest over allegations of rape against an African-American television and comedic legend are the same women swooning over non-consensual sex and violence perpetrated by a wealthy white guy against an innocent young woman on the big screen. What’s wrong with this picture?

Why the double standard? Has Mr. Grey’s helicopter scene stolen the oxygen from our brains?

 Movie scripts exalting sadomasochism are not harmless fantasies. Graphic images of violence and perversion don’t vacate our minds when empty boxes of popcorn hit the waste basket at the theatre exit.

The message of 50 Shades of Grey, that women desire domination even if they cry otherwise, reeks of disrespect, danger and denigration of women everywhere. Such filth cheapens legitimate desires of a woman’s heart and positions her as nothing more than a man’s disposable toy.

Sadly, the madness doesn’t stop there.  The negative impact to men escalates in direct proportion to what women tolerate, even embrace as romantic. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES, men are accountable for their actions. But they take their cues from women. In light of millions of female viewers supporting this glorification of sexploitation, should we really be shocked when men claim confusion while passing around a defenseless, intoxicated sorority girl like a bong in the 60’s?

Let me break down a few elements of 50 Shades’ “plot”…and I use the term looser than Madonna’s morals or P Diddy’s drawers:

Man stalks woman at her place of employment

Woman has innocent chats with male friend; man threatens to hurt her if she doesn’t stop

Man steals woman’s car and sells it

Woman tells man she is a virgin; man ravages her purity

Man breaks into woman’s apartment; Woman gets tied up to her bed and violently assaulted

Woman repeatedly utters the word “NO”; man takes that as a “come on” and perpetrates sexual deviancy including beating her with a leather whip to the point of crying out in agony.

What am I missing? What about this is swoon-worthy? Where exactly is the romance?

How does this qualify as a “love story”?  Two words: It doesn’t.

Consider the above but take away the leading man’s money, power and prestige. You’d have another episode of Law & Order S.V.U. where police officers vigorously track down this sick, twisted animal. As in any good cop show, the pervert would be captured. Someone would demonstrate the proper use of handcuffs to him. And he would trade in his suit pinstripes for prison stripes.  THEN sane women everywhere would have something to cheer about.

Lest there be any lingering confusion: Stalking, threats of harm, intimidation, and non-consensual  sex are  criminal acts. Not seduction. Not passion. Not romance. Certainly not love. Not even desire out of control, as any Women’s Crisis Counselor or Law Enforcement Officer can tell you. Forced sex is called rape. And it’s against the law. Men who perpetrate such actions are not sexy. Not irresistible. Not confident lovers. They are cowards. And they are criminals. They deserve to be prosecuted and locked up as the feculent felons they are.  Not glorified as role models of romance.

Finally, I’ll echo what every other voice of reason emphasizes…Women, we were not created objects of male gratification. All women deserve respect and honor.  There are men in this world who know what that looks like and are eager to engage you with enlightened magnanimity. Real men want to hold doors for you and willingly offer their seat to a lady. Real men speak without raised voice, threats or intimidation. Real men will only put their hands on you with loving intent.  Real men will protect your heart, not violate your body.

One last thought. Real men do not deserve mixed messages or double standards. Respect is a two-way street.

Whether Hollywood ever gets that or not, I pray you do.