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Not a death sentence: Why we need to change the way we talk to cancer patients

Ally Zacek | The DePaulia

Ally Zacek | The DePaulia

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It was a night like any other. My brother had gone to the hospital after feeling fatigued for several days and thinking nothing of it. An hour later he was screaming “Am I going to die?” through teary eyes to a man in a lab coat.

The doctor diagnosed him with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood.

Living with a family member with cancer tears you up. When I first discovered my younger brother was diagnosed with Leukemia, my reaction was shock, followed by grief, anger and ongoing anxiety. Knowing someone with a life-threatening illness is difficult on its own, but the conversation surrounding cancer is often harmful rather than helpful.

“For some reason, it feels dirty to people – shameful even,” said Doug Hanson, whose mother died of breast cancer at age 55. “I just don’t get it.”

Cancer can become isolating for both those diagnosed and their families when there is no outlet to turn to. For me, I felt like I couldn’t talk to my friends because they acted uneasy when I brought it to their attention. I felt like I couldn’t talk to my family either, because they were going through the same painful emotions I was going through.

“I think people often tip-toe around the topic or avoid bringing it up, and it can feel very alienating sometimes,” said Katie Thomas, whose mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at age 48. “If someone didn’t want to talk about it, then it didn’t make me feel like they cared about me or what was happening in my life.”

Oftentimes, cancer patients feel like they shouldn’t discuss their experiences because the topic makes those around them uncomfortable.

“I hated telling people I had cancer because they changed their whole demeanor toward me,” said Jackie Pawlowski, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when he was 13. “People only looked at me through sad eyes.”

Sometimes it’s even easier for cancer patients to avoid the topic altogether in an effort to be treated normally. My brother, among many others, retreated into himself after being diagnosed. It wasn’t easy for him to talk about cancer, and it wasn’t easy to ignore his disease when it was all people wanted to talk about.

“I haven’t told too many people about having it. I like being able to go out and not have every person in the room I know also know I have it,” said Jack McCoy, a graduate of Columbia University who has Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

People often say “I’m so sorry you have cancer” as an automatic response, yet that common phrase is often more damaging than supportive.

“I don’t control this,” Pawlowski said. “It wasn’t my choice, please don’t apologize. A better thing to say would be asking how they’re feeling.”

When someone has cancer they are in a constant state of anxiety from the time they enter the hospital to years after they are cured. Cancer patients often don’t want to think about their illness; it’s already a constant in their daily routine.

“My mom did not want cancer to become the focal point of conversation,” said Sal Fratto, whose mother was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at age 45. “She wanted people to check up on her of course, but to treat her how they always had.”

In 2018, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States according to the National Cancer Institute. With an overwhelming amount of new cases every year it’s likely someone you know will be affected by cancer in your lifetime.

Reassure them you’ll be with them always even if it’s just to listen. Be patient because everyone deals with cancer differently.”

— Jackie Pawlowski

Instead of pity and sympathy, many claim that humor is the best medicine. For my brother, activities like watching “The Office” from start to finish served as the distraction he needed.

“I’ve found cancer humor is the best way to deal with it,” McCoy said. “I had a friend who improvised a song about how I was going to die. Other friends in the room weren’t too happy with him, I was giddy.”

It is important to remember that cancer never defines a person; it is something they are living with, but they are not their disease.

“The most important thing she taught me is that she is not her cancer,” Fratto said. “She had always been the strongest person in my life. I knew that wouldn’t change.”

Ultimately, showing support and love is what cancer patients need during their experience.

“The most amazing thing about cancer is how many people just show their love and support for you,” Pawlowski said. “I was overwhelmed by the love, honestly, but looking back at it I really needed that support.”

We need to change the dialogue around cancer, to better the relationships and experiences of those living through it. Ignoring the issue or using negative language typically does not help patients feel better. Cancer patients want to be treated like human beings, not their illness, and they need encouragement, confidence and moral support to get through this hardship.

Instead of looking for automatic responses and pity, spark up a positive conversation about the issue or talk to cancer patients about other aspects of their lives, memories, interests and hobbies.

Cancer is deadly, but it is not a death sentence. People like my brother need hope to cope with their experiences, and it is our duty as their friends and family to provide that for them when situations seem hopeless.

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Not a death sentence: Why we need to change the way we talk to cancer patients