On Cancer and Platitudes

My friend, Kai, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007. The prognosis from the start wasn’t promising.

“She’s dying. I don’t know what I should say to her,” I shared with a friend.

“You don’t think she knows she’s dying? You don’t need to pretend otherwise. All you can do is continue to be you and be her friend. Just focus on that.”

My friend’s advice stuck with me and helped me be myself around Kai. I let how Kai was feeling be the guide as to what we would talk about. Most of the time, we laughed about my dating antics, our mutual friends and our dogs. When she wasn’t able to have visitors in the hospital, I sent her cards. With respect to her health, I wasn’t maudlin, but I also didn’t throw cliches around either. That approach is one that I’ve continued when communicating with people dealing with an illness or loss. Specifically, I think about the following:

  • How can I be authentic to our relationship?
  • How can I be supportive without being dishonest or saccharin?
  • If I offer to help, is this an offer that I’m prepared to follow through with?
  • If I say I’m praying for someone, do I make a point to do so regularly?
  • What would make the person in need of support feel better? (This experience was about them, after all.)

My approach can be seen as less than positive and too honest, though. Typically, the harsh realities of cancer, illness and loss are met with trite expressions. This penchant for platitudes was on my mind recently as I looked at my Facebook news feed. One of my friends was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, while another friend had passed away after her cancer had returned and metastasized.

There was an outpouring of support and positivity for the friend in treatment. I cringed as I looked at the well-intentioned comments on the Facebook wall of the friend undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

“You’re such a fighter!”

Umm…does she have any choice?

“Cancer doesn’t know who it messed with!”

It’s cancer. It’s a horrible, often insidious disease. This beast is bigger than all of us!

“You look great!” “You’ve never looked more beautiful!”

There is beauty and raw emotion in suffering. There are days in which people in treatment will present themselves in the best manner possible. And, there are those genetically-blessed people who just look beautiful no matter what. Nonetheless, when you mix beauty with chemotherapy, fatigue, and surgeries, even the most gorgeous person is going to look less so.

“God doesn’t give anyone more than they can bear!” “These things only happen to the strongest of people!”

Is God really responsible for cancer, illness, and devastating loss? That’s not how I regard a benevolent God. Moreover, as the example of my two friends indicates, both were strong and both fought hard. One is currently in remission, and one has passed. Beating cancer is more a case of luck than faith or strength.

I’ve written about how to show support to loved ones during a health crisis. The recent juxtaposition of unbridled positivity against the enormous despair of grief on my Facebook feed reminded me yet again of the need for genuine support. I understand why people respond to illness and death with well-intentioned platitudes. I just hope for the day when we can be more honest with each other. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m sorry. Cancer just sucks.” Period.

What are your thoughts? How do you respond in these situations? Are some comments inappropriate or is well intentioned enough?

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