The Best Way to Talk to Loved Ones with Cancer
You’ve seen the memes and the Facebook and Instagram posts telling you “positive vibes only” and to “stay positive.”
As a stage IV cancer patient, I’ve heard “You have to stay positive” countless times. For the most part, I am positive. I’ve made peace with my diagnosis and have adopted the stance that neither myself nor my doctors can predict the future, so I just have to appreciate the good things in my life. I try to practice “living in the moment” and not getting too ahead of worrying about what my future may or may not hold. Right now I’m on chemotherapy again, thanks to a recurrence; my oncologist seems hopeful that this will be my last one for a while, but no one knows.
The awful feeling that chemotherapy brings, the stress of medical bills and the feeling of hopelessness that comes when I realize I’m not as in control of my life like you thought I was means some days I need to get a good ugly cry out of my system. And that’s OK.
Denying people the full gamut of human emotions can be obnoxious at best and damaging at worst. Haley Goldberg, a senior editor for Shine, said it best when she wrote, “Chasing happiness can cause us to obsess over any not-happy feelings, bringing us more unhappiness overall.”
Dr. Michele Larzelere, PhD, an oncology psychologist at Ochsner’s Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center, notes that there are two distinctive aspects of thinking positive. Larzelere stresses the importance of setting boundaries for others, such as survivors and patients conveying that they don’t want to hear about other people’s health stories.
Faking positivity can also have benefits -- so long as it is a chosen behavior. For example, telling yourself “I am going to act as if I am happy and optimistic right now because I prefer that over acting sad or afraid,” can help, according to Dr. Larzelere. “It can be empowering to choose how you present to the world, no matter what is going on inside.” She said. “It is, however, also important to acknowledge the more difficult emotions one might experience as a patient (fear, pain, sadness, regret) because these emotions can have informational value and may guide your future decisions.”
I’m a rebellious person by nature, so when I hear “stay positive” when I’m in a negative frame of mind makes me want to do the exact opposite. I don’t think people mean harm when they tell me to stay positive, but part of me believes that others tell me that because they truly mean it, or they don’t know what to say in the moment so “stay positive” is an easy, quick thing to say in the moment when nothing better surfaces.
“Demanding that a patient stay positive often just insulates the friend or loved one from having to experience the difficult emotions that come with serious illness. The demand says more about the friend’s inability to cope than the patient’s needs,” Dr. Larzelere said.
For caregivers, friends and family, Dr. Larzelere suggests to focus on coping instead of just emotional positivity and offer to be there for the patient/survivor “through happy moments, sad moments, scary moments and boring moments and make sure you are doing the small and large things (such as) bring dinner, buy groceries, see a movie together, drive them to doctor appointments, etc., not just saying you will help.”I recently saw a meme created by illustrator Constant Bagel Therapy that resonated with me. It was a simple drawing of batteries that said “Positive only batteries do not work.”
Something more helpful could be to ask “What steps are you taking to getting better?” or “How
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are you feeling today?”
Instead of “Cheer up” try “I’m sorry to hear that. Let me know if I can give you a ride to work sometime/buy you lunch/ etc.” Cancer patients and people with chronic illnesses want to be as healthy as can be, and that includes our mental health.