There are 12 million of us in the United States who live with cancer and the number rises every year as researchers find new drugs to extend our lives. Some of us hide our diagnosis even from trusted loved ones, while others freely share it for a variety of reasons. I’m sure at least once in everyone’s life they will learn that a close friend or family member has cancer. How will you respond when you hear “I have cancer?”
Often, there is an awkward moment when people hear someone is living cancer—or worse, expects to eventually die from it. Listeners hear “cancer” and they become silent as if struggling to find the right words to say. Those of us who have decided to share our physical condition with you, often hear words that are based on your difficulty dealing with illness and death, rather than on what the diagnosis means to us.

Some well-meaning and sensitive people try to minimize the magnitude of what we are sharing, with words such as, “Oh don’t worry, we’re just around the corner from a cure.” Or statements filled with optimism such as “Let’s hope for the best.” And also the sympathetic “Oh, I feel so sorry for what you’re going through.” The search for the “right” words is futile.There are none.

 

Revealing one has cancer is not simply an issue of deciding to be honest or closed. The decision is based on a dance between the world of aperson who knows he or she has a limited future and their expectation of how the listener will react. It’s as complicated as a jazz improvisation occurring between John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

So, what should you say if there aren’t any “right” words? When I first started playing the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) I struggled to produce the “right” notes in a song I was learning. My teacher, who not only is a great musician but also a wise philosopher, said, “Stop worrying about the notes. Think how you would play the song to your child when he was a baby.” For him, notes came from one’s soul, not from the flute. The same applies in deciding what to say. The words are secondary to your understanding of how our lives have changed.

Instead of thinking about the words, try to imagine what those of us with cancer are experiencing. Many of us no longer think about death in theoretical terms. It has become something very real to most, frightening to many, and enlightening to some. Instead of having a lifetime to make up for our regrets, we may have a limited amount of time to remedy them. Instead of years to complete goals, we may begin focusing on how we are currently living our lives. How we approach that understanding is rarely straight-forward. It’s as circuitous as Lombard Street is here in San Francisco.

It is from this world that we are sharing with you that we have a life-threatening illness. And your understanding of our world should guide your response. And if you can’t imagine what we are feeling, rely on compassion.

Someone once asked the Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hahn to define “compassion.” He said to think about the person you are talking to as if he or she was your mother; the person who fed and cared for you when you couldn’t do it yourself.

So don’t worry about the right words. When you hear “I have cancer,” visualize that it’s your mother saying the words. And if you still can’t imagine what she would be feeling, then just ask us. We wouldn’t have shared something this personal if we weren’t prepared answer the question, “How do you feel about it?”

 

62 Responses

  1. Sue

    This article helped me immensely. Yesterday, a work friend revealed he had throat cancer, and it spread to his kidneys. I fretted all day that I hadn’t said the right words, until I read your article. Too absorbed in the recent loss of my aunt for the same reason, I asked how he is and where he’s getting treatment, burst out crying and mentioned her (silly of me), told him I’m worried and I care, and to please let me know what I can do for him. Maybe it’s natural for the recipient of such news to think of losing someone close, as I did. I plan to call him often and see how he’s doing, and ask how I can be of service or helpful. I’m crying as I write this.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Sue,

      I’m glad my article was helpful. I’m working on a short ebook that is an expanded version of this article. I know you’re not alone in agonizing what to say to someone who has a life-threatening illness. But what you did was exactly the right thing to do–to speak from your heart and offer whatever will be accepted. When my mother was alive, when she heard that someone did a good thing, she would say, “It’s a mitzvah (a blessing).” I’m sure if my mother was here she would say it again when she heard your story.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
      • Ken

        Please let us know about the ebook! My friends and family have asked me to send a monthly update on my mother’s cancer. How are we suppose to react? Devastated an make her feeling miserable for leaving us? Or joyful and look indifferent?

        I hope your book will tackle those who lose themselves in Internet research of the perfect pill that will cure cancer. My mother has to read some much already the last thing she needs are books on crazy unbelievable cures by the unqualified.

      • Stan Goldberg

        Hi Ken,

        Anyone who subscribes to my website (sign up is located on the upper right side of the articles) will receive the announcement. The book will not deal with the medical aspects of cancer, but rather focus on the emotions of having any life-threatening illnesses and how to respond to those of have them. A portion of the proceeds will be denoted to one or more cancer organizations (not yet selected).

        In my latest book Leaning Into Sharp Points, I do provide suggestions for caregivers dealing with the issues you wrote about.

        Take Care,
        Stan

      • Sue

        Thanks, Stan, and I understand mitzvah (smile). I’m looking forward to your ebook as well. It’s easy to try and “take over” and smother, and I need to let my friend tell me what he needs. Meantime, I’ve been reading (from reputable medical sources) about treatments and how to help those in treatment. Today I’ll call to lend my ear and offer rides, which I know will be needed now and/or later as treatment progresses.

  2. jill

    My best friend who has been like a sister to me for the past 40 years, had breast cancer 23 years ago. Up to last March, when she was told was told she had bone cancer. It has now spread to her liver. She is the type who never wanted any one to know she even had breast cancer. I went to all her doctor appointment, and chemo sessions. And too, the same when she was told about the bone cancer, I was the only person who knew (not even her sister or mother) When she was advised it had spread to her liver (a month ago), she stopped all contact with me. My calls went unanswered…I finally reached her one day … all she could say is that she really could not talk, but that it was bad. I am lost. She will not pick up her phone, answer her door bell. She does have two son’s … neither know of her condition, so I cannot approach them. I have abided by her wishes all these years…I just feel this is not the time for her to be alone (her husband left her after her mastectomy). I have thought of writing her a note. What do I do … What SHOULD I do? My heart is breaking, I just cannot imagine what she is going through. I would so appreciate any advise.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      My heart goes out to you. One of the hardest things I’ve seen is when someone feels helpless to provide comfort, especially to a good friend or family member with a terminal illness. I think the place to begin is understanding what your friend is experiencing. The way we deal with a terminal illness is different for everyone, and even more confusing is that it can change daily.

      Knowing that your death is imminent puts everything you thought into a frightening reality. It’s the difference between thinking how you will react to something catastrophic and then encountering it. The two often are very different.

      Most people reach a point when they can talk about a terminal illness and their death. But many never do. And I think that’s what’s most upsetting to their friends and family. They want to help, but either don’t know how or their efforts have been rejected—sometimes when they were welcomed yesterday. As a hospice volunteer, I never brought up the topic of dying to my patients. When they initiated it, I would listen and never minimized what they were going through. And at times I had to just wait until they felt comfortable initiating the discussion. Even being in hospice, knowing they were dying, the thought of death was too frightening for them.

      Remember, we live in a society where death is something not connected with life. We try to keep it at arm’s length until we can’t anymore. And when that happens it’s the past for many which is more terrifying than what they fear they may face them after they die. People are haunted with what they didn’t do, things they did that were hurtful, things that hurt them, and whether or not there will be time to forgive and ask for forgiveness.

      I’ve found these to be the most complicated emotions to deal with (I’ve been a counselor in various capacities for more then 30 years). But explanations of what may be going on with your friend don’t necessarily lead to what you should do. So here are some suggestions that may or may not apply to her situation.

      1. Understand, you can’t force her to talk about dying or accept your help.But you can let her know that you are there and will always be there for her, in whatever way she needs you-physical, emotional.

      2. Thank her for all she has given to you and meant. Also, what she has given to others.

      3. Do little acts of kindness that don’t require her to talk about her cancer or dying. Something as simple as dropping off a meal without expecting to be invited inside. Your friend may love you and want to confide in you, but the thought of dying may be beyond the trust she currently has. Remember, this is not necessarily the same person you knew before the cancer. As people lose abilities, relationships etc., that defined them for a lifetime, their personalities change. You can’t expect to rely on the trust you established with her over the years to carryover into this very difficult time. Doing acts of kindness may be a way of establishing trust for her new condition.

      4. Realize that although you want to do more, not being able to has nothing to do with your motivation or commitment to your friend. Sometimes the hardest thing we are forced to do for someone we love is nothing. After she dies, you will look back on what you tried to do to make her death easier and feel more comfortable than you do now.

      5. In terms of how to communicate your feelings and desire to help. Think of it in terms of what’s the least threatening to her. Sometimes a letter is, but it doesn’t come with the emotional response that is helpful. It’s very easy to read the words and not do anything about it. Face to face discussions may still be too threatening at this time. Between the two extremes are what I referred to as “acts of kindness.” You do them with absolutely no expectations of being thanked. Nor that any one of them will lead to the type of conversation you think will be helpful to your friend. Hopefully, they will have a cumulative effect. And what if your friend doesn’t respond, despite all of your kind acts? Rest assured they were appreciated in easing what she’s going through. There may never be any thanks, but you’ll look back on what you did, and feel good about it. Words of appreciation are a highly overrated thing. In issues of dying you also need to think about it’s effect on you. Will you look back on the relationship with your friend as one in which you were helpless to do anything, or will they fondly remember each of the little things you did? While these little things may not be of the magnitude of your friend confiding in you–it will give you a feeling that you did all that was possible, given the circumstances.

      Hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Take care,
      Stan

      Reply
    • Odile

      Hi Jill,
      You’re a wonderful friend. I’m so sorry you’re in such a tough situation. I would suggest definitely writing her a note or somehow conveying to her that you’re thinking of her. I imagine she’s feeling depressed & many times people isolate when they feel that way. Also, chemotherapy (or other drugs) affect people’s minds (it’s called “chemo brain”), so (as Stan pointed out) her personality may be different from what you’re used to. But it can’t hurt her to tell her that you’re thinking of her & you’re sending her your love & even that you wish you could spend some time with her. Even if she doesn’t see you, she will know that you care. I like Stan’s suggestions & hope they can be helpful to you. So glad you reached out here.

      Reply
  3. Priscilla

    Reading these responses today have really helped me. I was told once that, sometimes, there are no words and I agree. We sometimes have to be a listening ear and gentle touch.

    Reply
  4. Mary Hamilton

    With all the heart-felt emotions, factual information, memorable and helpful insight from everyone here; it would be difficult for anyone NOT to read and experience through all of you the hugs and hand holding going on here! Thank you, I feel so blessed today!

    Reply
  5. Sally Bode

    I think there are a lot of people unprepared to know how to respond to an individual with cancer. As with many things which are not pleasant, there are those who avoid the subject and those who are suffering, also are avoided. But cancer or in general “dying” is as much a part of life as anything else. Our culture has placed so much emphasis on fun that if it isn’t fun, many avoid the person who is ill even though cancer is not contagious. And so some who have cancer themselves, instead of reaching out, can decide to continue to shut out others.

    My sister died last month. She did not speak to me during her illness and would not talk to me even when she had the chance. Whether she had cancer or not, my sister had determined to herself that I was not her choice of a sister.

    My experience of life has been different, rather than we don’t get to choose who are family members are that we are blessed by having family is my outlook. My mother also died due to complications of having had breast cancer. She died in a coma. So twice I have not been able to say goodbye to two members of my family. But with my mother, I continued to visit her even in her coma and to care for my dad who had Alzheimer’s disease and was in a nursing home.

    My mother-in-law, when she was in hospice, called the whole family to her and we all had a chance to say goodbye to her while she was well enough to talk. It was a positive rather than a sad time for all of us also got to catch up on what we were each doing in our lives. Instead of shutting others out, my mother-in-law chose to include. It wasn’t morose. She did not talk about what was painful or hard but what was good and positive. It was like a wake, and she got to be there for it. We had a good day of it.

    This was a gift she gave to all of us and I am thankful for it. My mother-in-law had fought cancer and survived it for the thirty years but in the end, it took her. Perhaps it is why she survived so long because she always smiled and laughed in spite of it. She approached it just as it was everyday life as it was for her.

    There is going to be some misery for all of us. For most of it, we will outlive it and find better days. Then there will be what we cannot overcome. I think what defines us is not just our successes but also what we cannot overcome. If we do so the memory of ourselves which others will have will be a much greater blessing. Our task in life is to smile when we don’t always feel like it. In the end, doing so does not only do much for others, it does something wonderful for us too.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Sally,

      Very wise words about people not knowing how to react when someone says they have cancer. But I find it less attributable to individual fear than cultural values. As a society, we hid from the reality and naturalness of death.

      You’re also right about the importance of saying goodbye. But I’ve that even when given an opportunity to say goodbye, many people have problems expressing their thanks even knowing that they or a loved on are dying.

      There is an interesting thing that happens when some people are in a coma. According to two people I served who were in a coma and then regained consciousness, they were aware of much that was going on around them. They didn’t necessarily remember the words, but the feelings that surrounded them. You may not have had the opportunity to say goodbye to your mother, but I’m betting that she was aware of your presence and emotions.

      Reply
  6. DanneHotchkiss

    Stan, you have triggered a very thoughtful and broad dialogue here on the important topic of responding with our hearts whenever someone shares frightening news. Thank you.

    Reply
  7. Odile W

    “The search for the ‘right’ words is futile. There are none.” Thank you for this important reminder.

    If we hold ourselves to the impossibly high standard of saying only the “right” thing, then many of us won’t respond at all. Not responding can seem safer than saying the “wrong” thing. But it’s actually quite hurtful to others.

    I hope your piece encourages people to respond not only to those who tell us they have cancer, but to anyone who tells us something upsetting. One of your readers suggested saying “What can I do to help you?” when we’re not sure how to respond. A brilliant idea.

    I tend to think that any kind of communication (even wordless communication, like a hug) is better than no response at all.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Odile,

      Thanks for your kind words, I agree that we spend too much wondering if we are saying the “right” things. The more we think with our hearts and not with our heads, the easier it becomes to say and do things that are genuine.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
    • Lori Hope

      Odile, very well said, thank you. I am struggling with this personally, as a patient/survivor who has been disappointed in some of my friends’ reactions to learning that my slow-growing cancer may have morphed into a faster-growing kind. No definitive answer yet, but I am so raw and frightened – want kind words but don’t want to be honest about my needs because I know my friends are already trying to be so careful around me.

      Stan, thank you again for bringing this up.
      Lori

      Reply
  8. Lori Hope

    Hi, Stan – Was thinking of you last week when I did a reading from the second edition of my book at A Great Good Place for Books. Glad to find you here!

    As you know, I’ve been speaking and writing about this topic for many years, and as a two-time lung cancer survivor facing another bout with the beast, I’m learning even more. Here are some of my tips, based on a survey of more than 600 survivors and interviews with scores of patients, health care and communications professionals, and caregivers.

    First, admit that you don’t know what to say. This can defuse much tension and fear, and help everyone breathe easier.

    Then, express in whatever way feels comfortable, that you care deeply or love the person and that you will be there to go through this – whatever this is – with him/her.

    Third, acknowledge that this could happen to anyone, and that although you can’t know how your friend is feeling, you can and will try to imagine. This is the essence of compassion.

    Thanks so much for this excellent post, Stan.
    Lori Hope
    Note: Hope you’ll check out my blog on the Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/red-room/cancer-stories_b_1199359.html

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Lori,

      Thanks for the kind words. Great suggestions and you wrote a great book. I would also encourage people to follow your huffingtonpost blogs.

      Take care,
      Stan

      Reply
  9. Steve Evans

    Stan,

    You make such an excellent point [of course]: Image as a hospice volunteer you are with a patient who wants to know why God is punishing them with their fatal illness. You want to assure them it isn’t so, and hence to relieve their needless suffering … and all you can really do is hold their hand and witness their suffering, being there with them, unable to “fix” the situation.

    We ask, what might we “say” — words are so over-rated. Maybe we just need a better Language of Hugs and the Art of Holding Hands.

    Reply
  10. Steve Evans

    Stan,

    Their comment of having cancer creates for me at least some measure of anguish as their own. I have spent 35 years researching what to do for cancer. We now think we can control 85% of the cases no matter what the stage. I feel overwhelmed to tell them this. They are already feeling overwhelmed and usually just shrug off such suggestions. Maybe they in turn try to find the right words now — for me. They say, “I’m sure my doctor is doing the best. I am really confident in my doctor. I really like my oncologist. Sure, send the information to me — I’ll try to get around to looking at it,” or finally, “I’ll be glad to share your information with my oncologist to see what he or she says.”

    So in about 98% of the time, just as we cannot relate to their anguish, they do not totally understandably relate to mine to be of some service, to stop the travesty, to halt the medical assault, to stop the insanity driven by money and ignorance and mostly just greed by the cancer Industry. They are an avoidable accident, waiting to happen. I offer the insight to put on their seat belt, and they say they will sure enough take it into consideration — maybe check into it — if they can get around to it [and nearly always don’t].

    So this issue you present is not like one where a death sentence is truly inevitable. It is one where the blinded are heading off like sheep, ignorant of their unknowing complicity. It is as if your relatives could have refused to get on that train taking them to the concentration camp .. if only they knew they could just leave the platform by just walking out. They should not ask the nice military officer if they have permission — for he will only say no.

    Sometimes I remain silent. Truth is, actually most of the time I do. But it is NOT because I don’t have something to say ….

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Steve,

      I think those of us who have cancer are often so frightened about what we will be losing and what will never be completed that we’re willing to “hedge” our bets.

      Physicians who have the entire drug industry behind them are often viewed as saviors, because that’s what we want them to be. And unfortunately, most succumb to being placed on a pedestal. Patient fear, and the need of many in the medical profession to be unassailable, offers a lethal combination.

      As someone with a long history of asking “why?” (as I’m sure you’ll remember from our college days)I have never been content to accept “the gospel” unless I can see the scientific evidence. So in some ways, my history as a social activist has prepared me for my cancer. I’ve been fortunate to have contact with some medical practitioners who welcome the question.

      I can truly understand the agony you feel knowing that there are better roads to dealing with cancer than many of the traditional ones. I think in some ways what you are experiencing is what many of us hospice volunteers experience when we sit with someone who is in great psychological pain and we know it’s too late for us to do anything other than hold their hand and witness their suffering.

      Reply
  11. Judith

    We need to change how cancer is seen. Everyone hearing the word immediately jumps to “suffering and death”. So when someone tells us they have cancer, no matter how sympathetically we listen, or how loving or open we are, the thought in the back in our minds is about suffering and death. Even when we offer words of support and hope they sound hollow. We as a society have created a huge morphic field around cancer. The way we treat it adds immeasurably to the suffering of those who have it. The alternative health community has been saying for years that there are different ways of looking at cancer and treating it. Read Leigh Fortson’s “Embrace, Release, Heal” for a different point of view. Leigh has gathered together the stories of a dozen survivors who came to the end of the road with conventional treatment and healed using alternative ones. This is not about plugging Leigh’s book — it’s about a different way of looking at things.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Judith,

      I couldn’t agree more with embracing alternative cancer treatments. I was someone who initially viewed ALL alternative treatments as the equivalent of spinning a dead chicken around one’s head in the cemetery at midnight and wishing the cancer would go away.

      But as I looked into various treatments of prostate cancer and the research, I came away realizing that with our limited knowledge of the physiological processes associated with cancer, maybe that dead chicken isn’t so bad of an idea.

      I’ve approached my cancer with a combination of traditional and alternative therapies. I believe each has contributed to my longevity.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  12. Chris Olivier

    Most newly diagnosed patients want to talk to someone who has been there – so I ask “Would you like to talk about it?”
    I am involved with an organisation in South Africa, People Living With Cancer, for survivors of cancer who would like to give back and be Cancer Buddies to someone with a similar cancer – similar to your Immermans Angels – and we also run support groups. It is wonderfully rewarding.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Chris,

      What a wonderful organization and approach! Although there are some organizations like yours in the States, the idea of cancer survivors “giving back” to other survivors is not that widely practiced here–especially if the cancer is active.

      I know when I became a hospice bedside volunteer many friends and relatives didn’t understand how helping others die would not only prepare me for my death, but also how it could teach me about living, no matter how much time I have left.

      Reply
  13. Star

    I have a friend who is in end stage of colon cancer. We live only a few minutes from eachother. Although I want to see her often, the family has isolated her from friends. I am not sure if its because she is not up to visitors or her husband does not want her to be disturbed. Not being able to visit her I leave her daily voicemails. I feel helpless not being able to do more.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      It’s not unusual for those of us who want to do more for friends and family with cancer feel we aren’t doing enough. However, doing whatever we can–even if it’s not as much as we want–has to suffice. I think those voicemails are probably doing more than you can imagine.

      You might also want to ask her husband if there is anything you can do for him. Caregiving for someone who is ill is incredibly stressing. Doing something as simple as picking up the laundry, etc. is appreciated. Something simple such as “Joe, I’m on the way to the supermarket. Is there anything I can get you?” is terrific and yet non-intrusive.

      Even if your attempts to help aren’t accepted, they will be appreciated by your friend and her husband, and after she is gone, you’ll look back without any regrets since you did the best you could.

      Reply
  14. Tory, AllThingsCaregiver

    I was eighteen when my mom called me into our family living room to tell me she had breast cancer. My first response was to cry…which I believe was the release we both needed. She had been being so “strong” all day, waiting for my brother and I to return home from school. We cried together, then agreed, as a family, to fight this battle together. We were fortunte enough to have her almost six and a half more years. We held true to our pact as a family, and traveled the path of cancer together. My brother, dad and aunt were next to my mom’s side as she took her final breath. A very powerful moment.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Tory,

      If only people could understand the importance of what your mother did for her family and what her family did for her. It’s the basis of reducing regrets after a loved one has died.

      Reply
  15. Paula Christman Lilly

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, Stan. My husband is presently in complete remission from an aggressive form of lymphoma that will again rear its ugly head within the next 2 or 3 years, eventually overwhelming him. He’s now living his life to the fullest, and I’ve retired so that I can enjoy it with him. The responses we’ve received from the people who know about his cancer are amazingly varied. (Some who saw how sick he was before chemo, and how well he’s doing now, think that he’s been “cured.”) We’re learning that most people react to their own sense of finality, rather than how they think that he feels. And we forgive them for being uncomfortably human.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      You’re absolutely right Paula, about the varied responses. Also, as I’m sure you know, those of us with cancer react differently to our illness and to the responses of others to it.

      I’m never offended by the responses I receive to my cancer. Like you, I accept that discomfort with end of life issues is just being human.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  16. Kim

    My husband died from cancer. We would often discussed how people didn’t know what to say (or do which is the premise of my website.) For us (and for me after his death) the most meaningful phrases were; silence, tears and then a hug, what you said in this article “How do you feel about it?” and “I love you, you are not alone.” which always made me feel connected and loved. Hearing “How can I help?” was the least helpful because I didn’t know what that person was willing do? Wipe green snot from my kid’s nose, buy me a box of tampons or just bring dinner?

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Kim,

      Actually, “How can I help?” is a response that many of those living with cancer don’t have a problem with. My assumption is that usually, the offer is more than “pro-forma.” And since I know much about the person offering, I also understand what the limits are of their offer.

      Sometimes taking them up on their offer is more important for them than for me.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  17. West Coast Men BC

    Hi Stan,
    My usual response is to offer someone close alternative approaches to responding to dying cells…aka cancer. I suggest natural detox treatments, meditation, a super greens high anti-oxidant diet. I am not a big fan of the medical model approach to cancer treatment as I believe it tends to kill rather than cure people. I believe that people need to be empowered to believe in their power to heal themselves rather than having to rely on drugs and the system.

    Joy & Peace,

    Grant M. Waldman
    Executive Director
    West Coast Men’s Support Society – BC, Canada

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Grant,

      I agree that offering useful medical information is a great response. For me, that’s a baseline for any form of cancer dialogue. But I don’t think when someone shares the information that they might be dying or have a limited horizon, they are looking for factual information. I believe they are looking for a connection to that person that is more emotional.

      I know that when I tell someone I have prostate cancer, I think very carefully about why I’m sharing that information–what the effects will be on the person I talking to and how I’ll feel about their reaction. “Honesty” is an overrated concept. “Intention” I’ve found to be more useful.

      Reply
  18. Alan Gettis

    Hi Stan,

    Thanks for this. Later this month, I start my hospice volunteer work. You have helped to point me in this direction. Planning to read more of your books and articles.

    My best,

    Alan

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Alan,

      That’s terrific news! Be prepared to change–you’ll have no choice. Also, once you start feel free to email me any questions you have about your hospice service.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  19. Ruby Starheart

    Great article. My mother died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, less than 7 months after diagnosis. My dad phoned to tell me she had cancer. When I asked what the prognosis was he proceded to tell me what treatment they were going to do (chemotherapy). It was interesting watching how my dad and sister struggled to come to terms with what was happening and only coming to a place of acceptance in the last few days before she died.

    My mum and I knew she was dying and spent as much time together (around 4 weeks due to work/distance issues) as we could, just so we could say and do whatever remained that needed saying and doing.

    Terminal cancer can be a tough journey (it was incredibly painful physically for my mum and exhausting for my dad ferrying her across the country for hospital treatment) and it gives this time to complete, to be able to fully say goodbye and for the dying person the opportunity to prepare for their death.

    Blessings
    Ruby

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks for your kind words Ruby. I’m sure that what you did for your mother was the greatest gift both of you could have received. Unfortunately, I’ve counseled so many people who live with the regrets of not having done what you did.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
      • Ruby Starheart

        I know that death brings with it the realisation of how deeply we love people and by then it is too late to show people what they really mean to us. I was gifted with the insight to begin telling my family I loved them on a course I did many years ago – we were each challenged to commit to saying ‘I love you’ to our parents if we hadn’t done it recently. Most people, including myself, hadn’t done it in years, if ever. I went home, took a deep breath, called my parents and told them I loved them. Such a simple act, and yet it transformed our whole family – from then on we have told each other we love each other every time we are in touch. Such a blessing.

      • Stan Goldberg

        Good for you Ruby! It took prostate cancer and an uncertain future to lead me to that point. In eight years of being a bedside hospice volunteer, I’ve learned that not leaving things unfinished (e.g., thanking, forgiving, asked to be forgiven, etc.) is incredibly important for easing the death of loved ones and reducing our own grief after he or she dies. That’s the basis of my new book on caregiving.

        take Care,
        Stan

  20. Fernando Bellizzi

    Usually I say “how can I help you?”. And reading this post and the answer is a confirmation that this answer respect the meaning that the person gave to the hillness and gives the opportunity to the person to express their needs and feeling.

    Reply
  21. Greg Kayko

    Your post takes me back to the day, 31 years ago, that my dad told me he had liver and colon cancer and that they gave him six months to live. It was the day I returned home after graduating college. He’d flown from Connecticut to Iowa only days before to see me graduate and never mentioned anything. That day, the day I returned, he was blunt, and I was in shock and speechless. I told him I would by-pass graduate school and stay with him; he told me he’d have none of it. He wouldn’t have me staying around reminding him I was waiting for him to die so I could get on with my life. It was an extremely difficult afternoon for two men who had never known how to show emotion around each other, let alone know how to address the issue of death together. He lived for nearly two more years and I would have the good fortune to spend two more summers with him. Looking back, I really wish I’d had the question, “How do you feel about it?” at the ready when he told me. It would have made that first half hour after he told me much easier (and more empathic) for both of us.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Greg,

      I was taken by your wish that you could have asked the question, “How do you feel about it?” We all live retrospectively asking ourselves “what if” questions. And often, they do little than to torture us. What I’ve found is that we do the best we can given the circumstances of our lives. And dealing with one’s own death or the death of a loved one imposes incredible circumstances.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  22. Karl K.

    When I was first diagnosed with leukemia, outside of my family, I told only a few people in my inner circle. They were all very supportive and helped me a great deal. One person, however, responded by saying how this would change my whole outlook on life and “nothing will ever be the same again”. They went on to say how every little thing will take on a new meaning and my faith will change. They also talked about how I will never take anything from granted again and that life will mean more. To this day, now that I am again in remission, I feel a guilty about how none of those things happened to me or for me. I feel like perhaps I did something wrong or that my faith must be screwed-up – I never had that “life changing moment” that I was supposed to have.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Karl,

      I wouldn’t be concerned with what people said you should feel. Nobody’s illness nor death is the same. What may be an eye-opener for one person is inconsequential for another. After caregiving and helping people die in hospice for the past eight years, I’ve learned that “shouldisms” are usually laughable and always reflect the speaker’s own values or fears rather than expressions of universal truths.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  23. Barry Willdorf

    Hi Stan,
    I have had one sort of cancer or another since 2001. I don’t hide it from anyone. I’m not ashamed of having it. I am not asking for compassion or sympathy. My having it is more discomforting to some than it is to me. I recall vividly that when my grandfather was diagnosed, many years ago now, it was only whispered and the doctors didn’t even want to tell him what he had. When I told him, he took it so well that he was an inspiration to me.

    More than anything, I am amused by the attitudes of people who assume that they are going to survive me and plan for tomorrows that they feel certain will come to them. Before I got diagnosed I woke every morning under the delusion that I had a limited immortality determined by an actuarial table. I see now that I was delusional in a self-comforting way and understand that most people who are “healthy” are not fully in touch with the reality that life is ephemeral, death is inevitable and the most important thing we can do is behave in ways that we wont regret as the last grains of sand pour out.

    I am a bit surprised that the article you have posted is necessary. I guess I am out of touch with how retro much of society is about mortality. I think we can do better for ourselves and each other if we act as if our deaths were immanent and that we have an obligation to posterity that requires our immediate attention.

    Thanks for your continued commitment to this issue.

    Barry

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Barry,

      As my first-generation Jewish mother would say, “From your mouth to his ears,” with her eyes toward the heavens. It’s been my experience that we haven’t gotten much further in our acceptance of life’s limitations and death’s inevitability then we were during our parent’s generation.

      As direct evidence, look at the fears and level of discussion that occurred when the health bill controversy was manipulated to focus on committees for killing grandma. I listened to people who were rational in many aspects of their lives, shut down at even the mention of end of life decisions.

      Unfortunately, we have a very long way to go.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
    • dennis mitchell

      ive been dealing with cancer since i was 23 im 29 now and doc says i have less then a year left

      Reply
  24. Diane Carbo RN

    The first time I heard those words I was a teenager and the person saying them was my mother. This article touches to the heart of the matter. Sometimes words do not need to be spoken at all.

    Friends, embracing in a moment, just being in the present, sometimes is all a person needs. Just asking if there is anything that you can do for a person, makes things easier.

    I worked in oncology and there are so many individuals that do not want to talk about their condition, about the possibility of death and dying. Others talk as if they are going to die this very moment.

    Take cues from the person you are dealing with- actions speak louder than words. Your physical presence is the most important thing for the person with cancer and the family members as things get difficult through treatments. The things you do, how you made someone feel will long be remembered long after the person is cured or passes.

    Reply
    • Tory, AllThingsCaregiver

      Diane,

      I couldn’t have said it better. I was five when my grandfather tried to describe his cancer to me, and eighteen when my mom broke the same word to me. Simply being observant and aware of the individual you are speaking with can make all the difference. Thank you for your comment and insight.
      Tory

      Reply
    • Kenneth

      My mother now has an advance pancreatic cancer. My brothers are all in some form of denial but it’s time to get real and talk about it but nobody will.

      Reply
      • Stan Goldberg

        Hi Kenneth,

        I’ve found that everyone tries to deal with death at his or her own time schedule. Confronting them directly that there may not be much time left, rarely works. Sometimes it’s more useful to indirectly deal with what’s so frightening about someone else’s death (e.g., the loss of a mother may signify the loss of someone who validated the person’s life,fear about one’s own death, etc.).

        When the above doesn’t work, you may be left to deal with your mother’s dying on your own. Sometimes, when siblings see a brother or sister acting rationally,they follow. Your honest reactions to the eventual loss of your mother, may give them permission to voice emotions they may have felt weren’t allowable. And even if they don’t accept the reality of the situation, you’re doing something now that will be important to you later. Hope this helps.

        Stan

      • Odile

        Kenneth my heart goes out to you. I understand how you feel. It can make an already incredibly difficult situation feel even worse when no one seems to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

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