By Gerrad Downs
Every October (in Canada) we give thanks, and as always I have a lot to be thankful for.
I am thankful for my wonderful family: my wife and son, parents, grandparents, siblings (in-laws as well), and cousins.
I am thankful for my friends.
I am thankful that I have access to health care and treatments.
I am thankful for the support system that I have as well from groups like YACC and Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada, I have learned who I can talk to about cancer-related concerns (most often it is my wife), but I also learned how to talk with others about my concerns.
I am thankful these supports helped me become my own advocate and taught me how to let people know when they are being helpful or supportive. Sometimes, however, I have to have difficult conversations that let people know when they are not being helpful, and why what they are offering is so different from what I need.
Not everyone is good at talking to those affected by cancer about their illness, or even know how to be supportive, but I subscribe to the motto of “people succeed when they get set up for success,” and I have found that being direct with what you need is key when you are reaching out for support, and it helps to reinforce for others how to be helpful in the future.
Personally, I have dealt with more than enough unhelpful people over the last four years, and there are two that stick out to me as the most common:
The “tough love” person
Catchphrase: “Suck it up buttercup!” and “Others have it worse off than you.”
This is a person who just tells you to get over whatever it is that’s bothering you, whether it is cancer-related or not. More often than not, I do end up getting over what is bothering me, so I already know that whatever is going on will be short-lived, but for someone to be dismissive out of hand like that really discourages me from future interactions with these people (which usually is not what I am aiming for).
What to do with these people: Be direct with what you need from them. If you can’t give a clear instruction, let them know you’re feeling lost and just need to be heard.
If you are this type of person: Listen to what is being said and avoid any and all variation of “suck it up.” If you care at all about the relationship with the person who is reaching out for support, you will just avoid this “advice” altogether. It isn’t about finding a solution, it is about being a sympathetic ear. Feel special that this person has chosen to take time out of their day to come to you; it shows that they trust you.
The “unsolicited advice” person
Catchphrase: “Maybe you should try…” or “Have you ever thought about…”
Getting the “amazing cancer cure!” articles, posts, or “news” about the latest “medical breakthrough” makes me groan. I do my best to avoid all the alternatives to conventional treatment because when looked at critically, they just don’t work. I admit, I almost bought into some myths, but when I asked my oncologist about this, he simply reminded me that those ideas and specific diets could cause other effects — like weightloss — which wasn’t something I was interested in. But this “advice” is everywhere! Avoid eating this, eat superfoods, avoid toxins, etc., etc.
I don’t bother with any of it, and I can sum up why it is nearly always just hype and lies with two examples: John Oliver did a great piece on televangelists exploiting people’s fear and cheating people out of money. This isn’t specific to religion; it appears in the cancer sector more often than I care to think about. Then there is Belle Gibson, the Australian woman who claimed she cured her brain cancer (among other cancers) with just a specific, special, “healthy” diet, wrote a book, and a created a mobile app detailing that diet, both of which made her a lot of money despite the fact that she lied about having cancer in the first place and didn’t feel bad about misleading people in order to make a living.
To survivors: You know what works for you, and what you’re looking for when it comes to your well being, so let people know.
To supporters: Only give advice if you know that this person has asked specifically for it. For example, feel free to answer questions like, “I’m looking for great vegetarian recipes,” or “Does anyone know a good low-impact exercise regime that isn’t expensive?”
If you can’t resist, and find yourself sharing something with a survivor that they’re not receptive to, do not take it personally. We know you want to help and might feel powerless, but as survivors and patients, we are just as powerless in this situation as you are. Adding guilt with “But I just wanted to help!” really doesn’t make things easier for us.
From my experience, I found the most effective way to build a strong support system is to encourage others to just listen and if they want to help, just to ask “What can I do to help?” And that is one more thing I’m thankful for this October: those close to me who ask this regularly and follow through with much needed support.