Unsolicited Advice

You know the annoying unsolicited advice you get when you’re diagnosed with cancer? Here I am, more than six years out from treatment and I still have people email me, this time for their friends. They want to know if I can steer them toward internet links and resources for their friends who just got dealt the “You Have Cancer” blow. Caring friends, right? Right! They genuinely care, but are often misguided when it comes to how to help their friend with cancer.

I recently got an email from a good friend who barraged me during cancer with links to this miracle treatment and links to why chemo is bad and links to this or that resource. I tried nicely telling her to stop until I had to plainly say, “Do not send any more links. If I want your input, I’ll ask.” She responded along the lines of, “Wow. Someone’s having a bad day.”

Fast forward seven years later to now. I got an email from her about her newly diagnosed friend. She wanted the links to a resource I found helpful because she was collecting them for her friend.

When I first read her email, I wanted to respond:

I calmed down and recognized her plea came from a caring heart. I know personally that she knows how to support and show up, even if her style is overwhelming. So instead, I wrote back:

You have a beautiful heart. You want to help your friend, but speaking as a former patient, I would slow down on the gathering and giving of information. Whether or not it’s helpful, you will totally overwhelm him right now. And later? You’ll probably piss him off, although he won’t show it because he’ll appreciate your intention. Keep in mind that the patients themselves have many more resources available to them and even more incentive to research.

Let’s stop here for a moment. Do friends of cancer patients think their cancer friend is incapable of doing a Google search? Because that’s all the friend is doing. If not, do they think patients aren’t as motivated to get information as they are, so they have to do it for them? 

I hope well-meaning friends will take a different approach. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of suggestions, okay, my own unsolicited advice, for friends of cancer patients.

1. Hold the advice.

I know you want to help. With the internet at your fingertips, providing information is quick and easy. Motivations are often complex, but in the mix we acknowledge your caring heart. We love you for that, but your energy is better spent in other ways.

Most unsolicited advice is either irrelevant or far too elemental. The patient is way ahead of you. She not only has Google; she has an oncologist.

2. Listen more and speak less.

Hearing the words, “You have cancer,” is like a punch to the mid-section. It’s a traumatic blow and while your friend may say the right stuff and go through the right motions, emotionally she’s in shock, doubled over in pain and unable to stand. If there’s ever a time for information and advice, it’s not now. Your friend is raw and on overload. Just let it be.

3. Help in practical ways. 

Does your friend need rides to treatment? Perhaps you might offer to grocery shop, cook a meal, or do laundry. Your friend will not have energy for these everyday activities. Help in this area is probably the most appreciated thing you could do.

4. Know your limits.

One person can’t do everything and isn’t expected to. Know your own limits. Anything you do will be appreciated. Years later I remember all the little things people did, even if it was a one-time gesture. To me it was huge and I am grateful to this day.

5. Just be a friend, like always.

Just be you. Be the same friend you’ve always been. Your friendship is the best gift of all.

Getting back to my friend, she wrote back:

I’m doing it again! I want to be a source of support, not a stressor.  That said, I am offering you my apology.  I know at times I overstepped when you were dealing with your own situation and treatment. I am truly sorry for any stress I may have caused you.

I responded:

I appreciate the apology but it’s not necessary. You have a caring heart and can’t stand to sit idly by while your friends are hurting. Sometimes there’s nothing a person can do so you try to do something, anything, to help people you care about. You are a true friend. When your friends are down, nothing changes. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty.

That last part goes with No. 5. Many people drift away from their cancer friend when they become so ill that they’re no fun anymore. Illness may bring too much awkwardness to the relationship. The fact that my friend, imperfect as we both are, had the capacity to walk with me through that experience is something I will never forget. I am lucky to call her my friend.

Comments

  1. What an excellent post! It took me way back to my first breast cancer diagnosis. You have put everything so gently and daringly, while speaking truth clearly. So good! I’m sharing this one right now

    • Thank you, Knot. That means a lot coming from you because I know you are a truth teller. I hope you are feeling well these days and send you good thoughts. xo

  2. Perfection!

  3. Eileen, this is another excellent post! And like Claire mentioned above, it was presented so gently. I am so glad your friend understood your position and kindly responded to you. Many people make our cancers about themselves (I’m actually working on a post on this topic right now). So it’s nice to see someone actually considering the patient’s perspectives and being nice about it. You do have a good friend.xoxo

  4. Great post. Just being there, through thick and thin, is what really says it all.

  5. Excellent again! I remember a helpful friend suggesting a “better” oncologist, not understanding how desperately we needed to believe in the one we had. We were entrusting her with our daughter’s life, and were mid-treatment. I know she didn’t MEAN to be undermining— note: I remember it all these years later. Oxoxo

    • Amy, your well-meaning friend was completely thoughtless. Only someone on the other side of that advice could understand how devastating it must have been. No wonder you still remember it. xoxo

  6. Georgiann Gruenthaler says:

    Excellent article! I recently finished cancer treatment, and feeling overwhelmed, I did not need people’s dated and rudimentary unsolicited advice. I appreciated the meals from neighbors who were thoughtful, and did not intrude., knowing I was neutropenic. I did not appreciate surprise visits that lasted for hours, although the person meant well. Numerous texts and emails by someone wanting to help can get stressful, and I ultimately said “I’m fine”. I did and still do appreciate the genuine intention, but found myself pulling away from people so I could rest. Thank you for writing a helpful and sensitive piece.

    • Georgiann, I very much relate to your comment about pulling away from people so you could rest. I absolutely did that during cancer, and afterward while I tried to regain my health. I just didn’t have the energy. Socializing can be utterly exhausting when your health is compromised. Thank you for your comments. They made me feel not so alone re the pulling away thing. I hope you heal well and wish you my best.

  7. Marilyn says:

    A very good article. I would add to your #3 suggestion that if the person with cancer is young enough to have children at home, an offer of babysitting or taking the kinds on an outing is appreciated. My adult son and I both have cancer diagnoses. His is more serious at this stage, but mine is rarer so little research ongoing for me.

    • Marilyn, yes, babysitting for the patient with small children is so needed. Thank you for mentioning it in the comments. My list is by no means exhaustive, but I merely a few examples of everyday things healthy people take for granted, but are often difficult or impossible for the patient. I’m very sorry to hear about your son. You have a heavy load right now dealing with your own cancer and watching your son be so ill. I wish you both the best possible scenario, whatever it may be in your particular circumstances.

  8. excellent with great pointers-compassion and insight together 😉 maybe you could start a support group called “links anonymous ;-)”

  9. nancyspoint says:

    You are very wise, my friend and kind, too. Wonderful post, as usual. I’d say your friend is lucky to call you her friend. xo

  10. Linda Mails says:

    Being there through hard times and good times, is what love, caring and friendship are all about. Very good post, Eileen. It’s always wise to take the high road. Xo

  11. Kelly Lee Maher says:

    I have been regarded as “not too sociable lately”. I am in the middle of a reoccurrence with chemo, scans, blood work and doctor appts, but I am expected to be attending cook outs! People just don’t understand.

    • Kelly, you have commented on an area I personally find to be most frustrating. Even when you think you’re communicating clearly about why you can’t attend various things, people don’t get it and seem to take it personally, like you’re just not interested in their friendship. I’m sorry you experience this on top of dealing with a recurrence. xo

      • Kelly Maher says:

        Greetings Eileen thank you for your reply. It means the world to me to have someone who understands. I feel people want to know all the details for gossip material. And I have noticed the main topic when I am around is talking about others who have cancer and how “bad” they are. I have chosen to spend my days doing artwork, reading and prayer.
        The thing is none of these people have offered to help get my home in order when I am facing another treatment.
        Thanks for listening. health and peace to you, Kelly

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