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How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

This conversation was live when it aired on April 9, 2013. The original audio is posted here, although an edited version was included in a best-of Brian Lehrer Show episode on December 26, 2013.

Coming out of her experience with breast cancer, journalist and author, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, talks about, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick.

Guests:

Letty Cottin Pogrebi

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Comments [29]

Jane Rubin

When I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer in 2009, I wrote a book, Almost a Princess, My Life as a Two Time Cancer Survivor.The following is an edited essay:
The Cancer Etiquette Dance
No one seems to really know how to act around a cancer patient. I’m not sure that as one I’m too clear on it either. What I can say, with the benefit of hindsight, is that it is a delicate dance requiring great sensitivity and perhaps a bit of mind reading. I do empathize with not knowing the correct thing to do or say, since I have always regarded myself as a little clumsy in that department.
I can say that, at least for me, there are a few rules of thumb I can offer from my perspective about what not to do and what to do. I will go through them for two reasons. First, I hope if you are tempted to ask these questions, you might think twice. And second, if you are the cancer survivor, don’t feel uncomfortable speaking up if you’re not okay responding to the probing. The most obvious rule of thumb is, do not ask about the prognosis. One might think that such an outrageous question is beyond the grasp of any right-thinking individual, but some of the smartest folks I know, even colleagues of mine in the hospital, had the bad judgment to ask me that. My answer ranged from a kindly, “We were lucky to find it early and have every reason to feel hopeful,” to a disgusted, “Gee, tick, tock, tick, tock.” I think it got around quickly that I did not want to talk about it.
Sometimes, to fill the awkward silence, people asked, “What type of cancer do you have?” The last thing that my band of survivors need, is poorly studied advice, cancer stories whether good or bad or uninformed assumptions about our life spans and mortality.
I found it very uncomfortable to describe the side are not physical conditions that can be described delicately. Figure that very few people get through treatment without side effects. They go hand in hand with this lousy disease.
I found it difficult to hear others tell me that I looked terrific when, just that morning, I looked in the mirror and was greeted by a steroid-reddened swollen face from hell. I know you were just looking for something nice to say, but such exaggerations of the truth are pretty transparent and quite unnecessary. What I found best was encouragement, humor, and honesty.
The looks from strangers sometimes were worse than words. There is a big difference between empathy and sympathy looks. The trigger to onlookers seems to be my scarf. The scarf is the nonverbal signal that things aren’t ok. But my husband, God love him, enjoys the perks. We never seem to have to wait too long for a table, and when we had to make a return recently, the help desk couldn’t seem to do enough for us, even though we no longer had the box or receipt the item came with. I keep waiting for my hair to grow another inch so that I can put my scarves away, while he continues to encourage me to wear them. He says that we’ve never been treated better.

Dec. 30 2013 04:13 PM
Jane Rubin

When I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer in 2009, I wrote a book, Almost a Princess, My Life as a Two Time Cancer Survivor.The following is an edited essay:
The Cancer Etiquette Dance
No one seems to really know how to act around a cancer patient. I’m not sure that as one I’m too clear on it either. What I can say, with the benefit of hindsight, is that it is a delicate dance requiring great sensitivity and perhaps a bit of mind reading. I do empathize with not knowing the correct thing to do or say, since I have always regarded myself as a little clumsy in that department.
I can say that, at least for me, there are a few rules of thumb I can offer from my perspective about what not to do and what to do. I will go through them for two reasons. First, I hope if you are tempted to ask these questions, you might think twice. And second, if you are the cancer survivor, don’t feel uncomfortable speaking up if you’re not okay responding to the probing. The most obvious rule of thumb is, do not ask about the prognosis. One might think that such an outrageous question is beyond the grasp of any right-thinking individual, but some of the smartest folks I know, even colleagues of mine in the hospital, had the bad judgment to ask me that. My answer ranged from a kindly, “We were lucky to find it early and have every reason to feel hopeful,” to a disgusted, “Gee, tick, tock, tick, tock.” I think it got around quickly that I did not want to talk about it.
Sometimes, to fill the awkward silence, people asked, “What type of cancer do you have?” The last thing that my band of survivors need, is poorly studied advice, cancer stories whether good or bad or uninformed assumptions about our life spans and mortality.
I found it very uncomfortable to describe the side are not physical conditions that can be described delicately. Figure that very few people get through treatment without side effects. They go hand in hand with this lousy disease.
I found it difficult to hear others tell me that I looked terrific when, just that morning, I looked in the mirror and was greeted by a steroid-reddened swollen face from hell. I know you were just looking for something nice to say, but such exaggerations of the truth are pretty transparent and quite unnecessary. What I found best was encouragement, humor, and honesty.
The looks from strangers sometimes were worse than words. There is a big difference between empathy and sympathy looks. The trigger to onlookers seems to be my scarf. The scarf is the nonverbal signal that things aren’t ok. But my husband, God love him, enjoys the perks. We never seem to have to wait too long for a table, and when we had to make a return recently, the help desk couldn’t seem to do enough for us, even though we no longer had the box or receipt the item came with. I keep waiting for my hair to grow another inch so that I can put my scarves away, while he continues to encourage me to wear them. He says that we’ve never been treated better.

Dec. 30 2013 04:12 PM
Jane Rubin

When I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer in 2009, I wrote a book, Almost a Princess, My Life as a Two Time Cancer Survivor.The following is an edited essay:
The Cancer Etiquette Dance
No one seems to really know how to act around a cancer patient. I’m not sure that as one I’m too clear on it either. What I can say, with the benefit of hindsight, is that it is a delicate dance requiring great sensitivity and perhaps a bit of mind reading. I do empathize with not knowing the correct thing to do or say, since I have always regarded myself as a little clumsy in that department.
I can say that, at least for me, there are a few rules of thumb I can offer from my perspective about what not to do and what to do. I will go through them for two reasons. First, I hope if you are tempted to ask these questions, you might think twice. And second, if you are the cancer survivor, don’t feel uncomfortable speaking up if you’re not okay responding to the probing. The most obvious rule of thumb is, do not ask about the prognosis. One might think that such an outrageous question is beyond the grasp of any right-thinking individual, but some of the smartest folks I know, even colleagues of mine in the hospital, had the bad judgment to ask me that. My answer ranged from a kindly, “We were lucky to find it early and have every reason to feel hopeful,” to a disgusted, “Gee, tick, tock, tick, tock.” I think it got around quickly that I did not want to talk about it.
Sometimes, to fill the awkward silence, people asked, “What type of cancer do you have?” The last thing that my band of survivors need, is poorly studied advice, cancer stories whether good or bad or uninformed assumptions about our life spans and mortality.
I found it very uncomfortable to describe the side are not physical conditions that can be described delicately. Figure that very few people get through treatment without side effects. They go hand in hand with this lousy disease.
I found it difficult to hear others tell me that I looked terrific when, just that morning, I looked in the mirror and was greeted by a steroid-reddened swollen face from hell. I know you were just looking for something nice to say, but such exaggerations of the truth are pretty transparent and quite unnecessary. What I found best was encouragement, humor, and honesty.
The looks from strangers sometimes were worse than words. There is a big difference between empathy and sympathy looks. The trigger to onlookers seems to be my scarf. The scarf is the nonverbal signal that things aren’t ok. But my husband, God love him, enjoys the perks. We never seem to have to wait too long for a table, and when we had to make a return recently, the help desk couldn’t seem to do enough for us, even though we no longer had the box or receipt the item came with. I keep waiting for my hair to grow another inch so that I can put my scarves away, while he continues to encourage me to wear them. He says that we’ve never been treated better.

Dec. 30 2013 04:12 PM
ellen diamond from Manhattan

I've lived with an incurable leukemia for 16 yrs. At first I was terrified and a friend said: "If you need to call at 2AM to talk, don't hesitate." Wow. I did call her a bit later in the morning once or twice when I woke up afraid. Later there were 2 things that really helped: (1)being able to joke about death with friends and (2)having them tell me about their own lives, both of us finding out I still cared just as much about their lives. I also asked good friends later what they were feeling about my having leukemia. At first they hesitated but I really wanted to know and it was good for our relationship. For the past 10 yrs I've been in remission and live a normal life; well, I may stop to smell a few more flowers.

Dec. 26 2013 12:20 PM
BigGuy from queens

Republicans encourage quadriplegics to pull themselves up by their bootstaps.

Dec. 26 2013 11:52 AM
Amy from Manhattan

For a friend who's had an injury rather than one whe has an illness, do *not* ask, "What did you do?" or, worse, "What did you do to yourself?" That *really* makes it sound like it's their fault. After my accident, I heard this enough that I started answering, "What did *I* do? I crossed the street!"

Dec. 26 2013 11:50 AM
jm

An old friend of mine was diagnosed with ALS this past year, and I'm really struggling with how to balance thoughtfulness with his wicked sense of humor (which shows no signs of subsiding). Due to geography our current friendship is also mostly limited to email and social networks, so I want to be sensitive without bumming him out. Doctors are so far giving him about 5 years before the wheelchair phase, so the timeline is additionally confusing.

Dec. 26 2013 11:49 AM
Carol from Long Island

The vague "let me know what I can do" is very often just a way to get out of doing anything. People who are sick feel very vulnerable,and it's hard to us to ask for favors when you're trying to soldier through. I had the experience of people at work physically backing away from me with the hands outstretched as though trying to ward off contagion from my colon cancer as they said that. Especially if there are family to be cared for in the home of the sick person: send a meal! the others have to eat too, even if the person on chemo can't keep much down, and it's hard for them to think about the mundane food prep chores when caring for Mom.

Apr. 09 2013 06:45 PM
Rachel from Queens

My mother died of cancer last August, and the best piece of advice I can think of is to let us -- those who are ill and those who support them -- feel how we feel. Nothing feels worse than being told your feelings aren't appropriate or real.

Apr. 09 2013 02:10 PM
Lori from Larchmont, NY

Ten years ago, when my perfectly healthy son was suddenly afflicted with encephalitis at the age of 4 1/2, my husband and I took turns sleeping at the hospital with him for 18 long, horrible days and nights. It took a while for the doctors to diagnose him correctly, while he continued to suffer from seizures, lethargy, memory loss, and other neurological symptoms. I will never forget the outpouring of support from our friends and neighbors--some of whom we had only known for a year or two--who brought meals to our home (where our toddler remained) for a full month. With everything from thai salmon to kosher take-out, we were sustained through this difficult time. Others pooled money and sent clowns and magicians to the hospital entertain our son, whom we then freed up to visit other sick children on the floor. Letty's book reminds us how important it is to show kindness in specific, helpful ways. Thanks, Brian, for airing this important segment this morning.

Apr. 09 2013 12:29 PM
Sheri from Brooklyn, NY

Yes, Josh thank you for your suggestion. First off, I want to say that you can test negative for Lyme and still have it!!! (in case you don't want to read the rest) I've been around the block (as many chronic Lyme sufferers have) with a myriad of doctors, practitioners, remedies, modalities, healers and protocols. I know most, if not all of the cutting edge treatments out there to date (including emotional processing work). However, Lyme treatments are largely NOT covered by insurance. Certainly not alternative medicine. Lyme isn't always the primary cause of symptoms either. And testing is spotty at best. Igenex Labs should be the standard test...NOT the Western Blot---your average primary care physician orders. It's an epidemic of gross proportions. If the CDC were to recognize/admit Lyme (along with all the neurological and co-infections that often go along with it)for more than a 30 day round of antibiotics, we'd have a chance at a cure. Most of us can not afford treatment that's required for our individual needs. Many suffer and will/have died. This is not reported or acknowledged in any mainstream media. It has been suggested by multiple sources that Lyme disease cases now surpass HIV/AIDS cases. And lastly, (though I could go on) most people go undiagnosed unless they get the bulls-eye rash (less than %50 do). Lyme has even been linked to Alzheimer's Also mimicking MS, etc. Thanks for listening.

Apr. 09 2013 12:21 PM
Sarah Konsevick from New Jersey

my daughter was born with a serious congenital heart disease 33 years ago. No one called me and no one came to the hospital. In short, no one knew what to do because we didn't know whether she would make it or not. My Mom, however, sent me a little flower arrangement. It was a strange experience. My daughter has done well and is expecting a child with no cardiac issues. Yay. Family and friends are ecstatic and cautiously optimistic. Of course.

Apr. 09 2013 11:57 AM
Donna from Brooklyn

Thank you for this segment -- just wish it could have been longer! I had a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery 10 days ago and start chemo in a few weeks. You've hit so many of my pet peeves on the head, especially the ones when people ask "How are you?" or say "You look great, especially for someone who just had major surgery!" There's one though I don't think was covered but wonder if it's in your book (my husband is ordering it online as I type). It's about friends and family who haven't really been there as much as you would have liked during good times, but since hearing about the diagnosis have bent over backwards to do more and be around more than ever before, to an extent that exceeds the level of the current relationship. I'm grateful for the concern and know it comes from their hearts and they mean well, but wow, it made me feel worse in some ways, and that their actions were more to make themselves feel better as opposed to me. Or be careful about the jokes you crack. I've struggled with my post-40 weight gain in recent years, and one commented, "Well, the surgery will removed a good five pounds. You should be happy about that!" I was speechless. That said, the best advice is to just be there, as you normally are and have been, and try to help when asked to help, otherwise just try to carry on as normal, talk about the things you normally talk about, try to make the person feel like the same person they always have been, even though a part of them has been changed forever.

Apr. 09 2013 11:43 AM
DD from unwanted advice

Vitamin D will cure and prevent all sorts of things.

Apr. 09 2013 11:39 AM

As the guest said, "How are you?" can be a minefield. Better: "What're you doin'?" or "Hey; what's happening" or "What's goin' on?" It gives me a chance to choose between "I'm lying here trying to decide if Kevin Ware would have made a difference in the game last night" or "I'm still in a lot of pain."

Apr. 09 2013 11:38 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I think a lot of it is about being open to whatever your friend needs & what s/he wants to talk about. Leave it open-ended as to what the sick person wants to say, & be ready to hear things you might not be so comfortable with. If there are limits to what you can do for your friend, be honest about that rather than say you'll do anything & then not be able to live up to it.

Apr. 09 2013 11:32 AM
fuva from harlemworld

From personal experience, seems the best thing is to be available. And also to be honest; the sick person can understand your discomfort, so no bs.

Apr. 09 2013 11:30 AM
Brian Waite from Vancouver, Canada

I lost over seventy friends during the worst period of the AIDS crisis from 1985 to 1995. Some of those that I was able to visit during their last weeks told me, "Cheer up. I'm not dead yet." I learned to try to be as "normal as possible and small gestures such as swabbing out a very dry mouth with water soaked swabs or offering to provide a foot rub were appreciated. I would tell the recipient to hold my nose if they wanted a two-handed rub. I am quite gregarious and prone to joking and all it took was a certain look for me to know when to cool it and simply allow both of a us some meaningful silence.

Apr. 09 2013 11:29 AM
Mark from bronx

Please don't be diagnosed with one of the "easy cancers", such as prostate cancer. Friends will definitely treat you as if you only have a cold. This is true even if you express to them that you are having side effects that have a tremendous impact on your life.

Apr. 09 2013 11:25 AM
Liz Timberman from NYC

I didn't like people who popped in while i was in the hospital. It was preferable if they called to see if I was up for a visit.
I didn't wan't friends to see me when I was feeling miserable. That was private to me, as opposed to simply feeling tired but OK. I finally had my family call the friend to ask them to call first.
I also told my sister that I always wanted my hat on, I didn't wanted to be greeted with no hiar.
Other than that, people were so wonderful.

Apr. 09 2013 11:24 AM
Josh Karan from Washington Heights

Re Lime Disease:

Consult a homeopath.
Many who I have spoken to have had extensive success in having patients fully recover.

Email me if you want more info.

Josh Karan
joshkaran2@mac.com

Apr. 09 2013 11:23 AM
Jim Bradley from Brooklyn

I don't wish to draw a parallel between unemployment and serious illness, but the dynamics and conversations and presents are oddly similar. I guess the Lesson here is a True sense of genuine human compassion flavored by some wisdom. Thanks for bringing this topic up so clearly.

Apr. 09 2013 11:20 AM
O from Brooklyn, NY

Be there. Just be there.
Also be there for the family of the sick person. Don't pretend everything is OK. It's not. Their life is falling apart and they need support, too.

Apr. 09 2013 11:20 AM
anonyme

Nurse or not (caller) you need to be sick to have any idea where they are going through - Letty is saying it: just BE THERE!

a 20 year survivor told me when I first got the diagnosis - DO NOT TAKE CARE OF SOMEONE ELSE"S FEELINGS you need the energy for yourself.

Also, people freak out! Don't expect them to act anything but shocked!

Apr. 09 2013 11:16 AM
Dave from NYC

Having just been through this for three months solid as a caregiver for my nephew who was in his last weeks battling cancer - don't bring along surprise "friends" that someone isn't expecting. And don't take it personally if the person says they'd rather not have a visitor - even if you're at the front door. It's not about you - it's about them. Just text or email that you came by and you love them, and that you'll come back the second it's a better time.I

Apr. 09 2013 11:15 AM
Debra from Montclair

You don't need to entertain the sick person. Sometimes (especially in the hospital, you can just sit quietly and read) - Know when the person is too tired to talk.

Apr. 09 2013 11:13 AM
David Moriah

Very timely for me. Will be visiting friend next week in Colorado to provide support, drive to doctor, etc. It's a woman dealing with breast cancer. Any advice for a male friend wanting to be there for her in this situation?

Apr. 09 2013 11:11 AM
Christine from Westchester

Great topic. I'd love to know how to support a friend who was diagnosed with ALS and doesn't like to talk about it. Acting "normal" isn't really the same as the physical problems he has are visible. Any insight on how to act is appreciated.

Apr. 09 2013 11:09 AM

please include how to be a friend to that sick friend's siblings and family as well, with whom one also might have enjoyed close relationships over the years, but suddenly there are brand new gatekeepers, sensitivities, secrets, etc...

Apr. 09 2013 10:07 AM

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