The first time someone uttered the words, "You still have hope" in response to my cancer, I almost slapped them. When an RN said these words -- meant to comfort me -- I raged. I was planning on a little more than hope.
But their mistake isn't unique. With cancer becoming more prevalent and people living longer and healthier, the sick are now venturing into society more, encountering acquaintances in social situations.
Miss Manners never addressed how to handle the news someone you barely know has a life-threatening disease with etiquette in five-minute small talk. There is no precedent on the social savior fare for this situation, and I have experienced some flubs. I put them in my list of Things to Never Ever Do or Say When Someone Tells You They Are Sick:
1. Do not scrunch your nose and ask, "That's not contagious, is it?"
2. Do not say, "Oh, my great aunt Millie's cousin (or whoever) died from that."
3. Don't ask, "Are you going to die?"
4. Don't pepper them with a hundred generic questions about the type of cancer, treatment regimen and hospitalizations.
5. Don't say "Oh" and run away like the person has the plague.
6. Don't congratulate the person.
7. Do not ask if the disease comes from something the person did (Ex: "Don't people with STDs get that?").
8. Do not suggest asparagus, shakes or any other miracle cure that is "proven to work."
9. Do not try to sell the person that particular product.
10. Do not try to sell anything from any of the aforementioned social faux pas. You'll look like you're trying to capitalize on the person's desperation.
11. No asking questions just so you have the first-hand gossip.
12. Do not start on a rampage lecture about how someone somewhere has the cure and is hiding it in a conspiracy theory to make money from your suffering.
13. Definitely DO NOT suggest the person's providers are in on the scheme.
14. Do not shrug, toss your head and say, "Well, there is always hope," because the person is probably hoping there are a whole lot of other options than just hoping.
15. Do not state that the person got the disease from past bad behaviors either in this life or past ones. FYI: The preacher who stated I must redeem myself for past wrong-doings to be cured later was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died.
16. Don't send any books, magazines or texts that state or even suggest that cancer is caused and can be cured by meditation, changing your personality, etc. etc. Specifically, Dr. Bernie Seigal is not acceptable for the patient in treatment.
17. Do not start a lecture on eating habits and how the person should have only eaten organic vegan, drank green magma and taken wheat grass shots. It's too late for that.
Yes, every single reaction here is something someone has done or said, shocking and/or offending me, albeit unknowingly, but giving me some good laughs too.
Luckily, for every action there is an equal or stronger reaction. Here are my tips for What To Do When Someone Breaks Bad News:
1. Take a breath and think for a second.
2. If you are speechless, say so. Admit to being shocked.
3. Extend your condolences.
4. Ask how they are feeling and if they mind talking about the situation.
5. If they are okay to talk, ask a few simple questions remembering the person has probably encountered the same line of questioning a hundred times all ready.
6. If they shrug, say, "I'm fine" and look like they want to flee, let them.
7. If you are able to help, offer. Saying, "If there is anything I can do please call" is great, but it's great to be specific. Say, "I make a great (insert dish). Would you like me to bring it over?" Or "I have free time on Tuesday, do you need help cleaning the house?" This takes the pressure off the person to have to call and admit to themselves their having problems. It's amazing how hard it is to ask for help.
8. Do not offer help if you are unable, too busy or expecting something in return. The person is devastated and won't be able to return good deeds.
9. Offer genuine empathy, but not sympathy. People feel worse when they're being treated like a charity project instead of a human who has met an obstacle.
10. Leave with a smile on a good note saying, "You'll be in my thoughts" or "Please take care." Above all, be genuine.
11. Even with this advice, you may still have a foot-in-your-mouth moment, don't beat yourself up.
Remember, both sides are in the sensitive conversation together. We sick know people mean well and want what is best for us. Words just don't always come easily when emotions run high, but don't worry, we're probably all ready off, forgetting or not noticing the error in manners, planning our survival.