5 things to avoid saying to cancer patients

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Well-meaning yet inappropriate words can often be unhelpful and even harmful when delivered to patients fighting cancer.

In her Monday column in The New York Times, Jane E. Brody, the personal health columnist for the paper who has faced her own cancer diagnosis, examined the unwitting language often used when addressing cancer patients.

Here are five things you should avoid saying to someone with cancer.

1. Asking, "How are you?": Avoid this open-ended question. Ms. Brody cites this as the most commonly asked question of a person with cancer. While well-intentioned, the columnist argues the question is not particularly supportive.

In the Times, Ms. Brody writes, "At a celebratory family gathering a year after my own cancer treatment, a distant relative asked me just that. I answered, 'I'm fine.' She then pressed, 'How are you really?'

'Really' I was fine, I told her. But what if I hadn't been? Would I have wanted to launch into a description of bad medical news at what was supposed to be a fun event?"

2. Joking about a patient's physical changes: Avoid statements like "At least you finally lost those extra pounds."

3. Comparing a patient's cancer: Ms. Brody recommends not saying the patient is lucky to have one form of cancer instead of another and to not discuss outcomes of patients with similar cancers even if they fared well. Cancer affects each individual differently. However, asking if the patient would like to speak with someone who has had a similar experience is advisable.

4. Blaming the lifestyle: Suggesting a patient's lifestyle is directly responsible for the onset of cancer is not helpful, even if it is a contributing cause.

5. Offering blind optimism: Ms. Brody's article cites the book Loving, Supporting, and Caring for the Cancer Patient by Stan Goldberg, PhD, a communications specialist and professor emeritus of communicative disorders at San Francisco State University. Dr. Goldberg was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer at age 57. In an interview, Dr. Goldberg cited phrases like "Don't worry about it," "You'll be fine," "We'll battle this together" and "They'll find a cure" as particularly unhelpful.

According to the Times, Dr. Goldberg observed, "Words of optimism may work in the short run, but in the long run they can induce guilt if the cancer is more virulent and defeats a person's best effort ... I was dealing with the possibility that my life would end shortly, or if it didn't, it would be changed dramatically. False optimism devalued what was going on in my body. People were insensitive not from a lack of compassion but from not knowing what is really helpful."

More articles on patient engagement: 
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Hutchinson Regional seeks past patients for advisory board 
How mathematics is enabling patient-specific healthcare

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