Why Do We Keep Telling Cancer Patients How to Feel and What to Do?

Do you remember when you were a small child and afraid of the dark? I do. Or maybe you were afraid of something lurking under your bed or in your closet. For years I thought something or someone was hiding under my bed just waiting to grab me if I as much as dangled my foot over the edge.

I also remember running into my parents’ bedroom (after garnering enough courage to leap out of my bed) in the middle of the night from time to time and being told the usual things. Go back to bed. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s only your imagination. There’s nothing under there.

Sound familiar?

Do you ever stop to think about how kids must feel when they are told such things?

Just because someone tells you there’s nothing to be afraid of, this doesn’t mean you stop being afraid, right?

Talk about no validation.

This same sort of thing often happens in Cancer Land. Too often cancer patients do not get validation for feeling afraid, angry, anxious or however they might be feeling.

In fact, instead it’s often subtly, or not so subtly, suggested there are certain ways cancer patients should feel and certain things they should do.

For example, when diagnosed, we’re often told things like:

Be strong. Be brave. Stay positive (this one really irks me). Fight hard. Kick ass. Be a warrior. And so on…

Then throughout treatment we hear things like:

You’re so tough. You can beat this. You’re only given what you can handle. You only have two rounds of chemo left. You don’t look sick. I hear chemo’s not that bad these days. You’re only having radiation, so you’re lucky. Everything happens for a reason. At least you’re getting a free boob job out of it. Attitude is everything, so just stay positive.

You get my drift…

Then… if you’re “lucky” enough to wrap up active treatment (metastatic patients are not; their treatments continue for life), again, the advice on how to feel and what to do starts rolling in.

Sometimes the advice is helpful, but often it’s not.

A few “gems” often tossed around, again, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, are:

Put it behind you. Move on. Find your new normal. Forget about it. It’s time to pick up where you left off. You’re a better person now, right? (If not, why not?) What did cancer teach you? Be grateful, you’re alive aren’t you? And the real stunner to me, what gift(s) did cancer give you?

Supposedly, it’s all about encouragement. I get that. This is the intended nature of most advice, to encourage.

But it might very well be more encouraging to allow for genuine-ness. There is no need to fix or make light of anyone’s feelings, cancer or no cancer.

It might not be helpful to tell a cancer patient how to feel or how to act unless, of course, they want you to. And some cancer patients do like hearing this sort of thing, which is fine. But many do not.

For many, cancer or no cancer (including that child who’s afraid of the dark), listening, validating and allowing genuine feelings to be felt and shared might be a more helpful and loving option.

And isn’t this what truly meaningful support is all about?

Why do you think people keep telling cancer patients how to feel and what to do?

Do you think doing so is helpful?

Nancy Stordahl is a breast cancer survivor who blogs candidly about her experience at Nancy’s Point. She is the author of Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person: A memoir about cancer as I know it and is also the author of Getting Past the Fear: A Guide to Help You Mentally Prepare for Chemotherapy.