What Not To Say To Someone Who's Sick

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Getting diagnosed with a serious illness that requires a lot of medical intervention is an extremely stressful experience. There’s a lot to navigate, and as the friend, family member or even casual acquaintance of someone going through a difficult health scenario, you want to help ease the burden, not make it worse. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t say to someone who is ill.

Don’t Give Medical Advice

One of the biggest complaints from people who are fighting cancer or any kind of life-threatening disease is how many people around them suddenly become doctors. On Reddit, MondoCalrissian77 posted in r/LifeProTips to say cut that crap out:

You’d think this shouldn’t have to be said, but when my mother got cancer a bunch of family and friends try to give advice that’s totally false or only partially correct since they never did real research and only heard part if the advice. Leave this to the professionals and stick to comfort and being there for them.

Unless you are a doctor, your understanding of what that person medically needs is probably limited. Even you’ve been through a similar illness, it still isn’t appropriate to offer medical advice unless asked. That bit of advice gleaned from an article you read four years ago is not likely to shed new light on the situation, and parroting it is just annoying.

Don’t Try To Figure Out Why

When we find out someone has a serious illness, we might feel the urge to figure out how they got it. Is it genetic? Did they contract it somewhere abroad? Did they eat the wrong things? Basically, what did they do to invite this tragedy into their lives?

You may not consciously think that you blame someone for being sick, but we often look for ways to understand what someone did so we can imagine there’s a way to avoid it happening to us.

Writer Steven Thrasher wrote an op-ed for The Guardian in 2016 about the tendency to tell cancer patients about miracle cures, something he witnessed a lot of when his sister became sick with cancer. People wanted his sister to care for herself in the way they thought best, and if she didn’t, it seemed to imply she was at fault if she didn’t recover:

Don’t tell a sick or injured person what they should do, because it’s a sneaky and harmful way of dealing with your own fear of death. You’re saying, tsk tsk – I wouldn’t let this happen to me the way you’ve let it happen to you.

They don’t need your advice or your curiosity — and they definitely don’t need your judgement.

Don’t Tell People to ‘Think Positive’

In 2010, Barbara Ehrenreich published her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. It covered her own experience with cancer, and how people are marketed the idea that thinking positively will make them miraculously well.

The book dives deep into the history and science (which is basically non-existent) behind this concept, and how it’s often used — similarly to unsolicited medical advice — to shame.

There is wisdom in enjoying life as much as you can in the moment, to not go spiralling out when things feel dark. But it also isn’t up to you to remind your loved one that they should “stay positive”. Sometimes people need space to vent, to talk about how things might get worse, to express their fears. Don’t make them think they need to stay upbeat to cure themselves.

Fortunately, the alternative to optimism is not pessimism, which can be equally delusional. What we need here is some realism, or the simple admission that, to paraphrase a bumper sticker, “stuff happens,” including sometimes very, very bad stuff... Some will call this negative thinking, but the technical term is sobriety.

Offer to Do Specific Things

Sometimes it’s hard to know what someone needs, and our default is to say, “Let me know if I can do anything.” Consider that someone might be too sick or tired to even figure out what they need. They might also fear putting a burden on you.

Instead, offer specifics. If you’re going to be in their neighbourhood, ask if you can drop off dinner or take the dog for a walk or take their kids to the park. And if you aren’t getting a response, give them space for a while and then try again.

Being supported can be overwhelming. If you’re intimate with someone, just show up. You can clean their kitchen and leave it at that — there is no grander gesture than taking care of the mundane.

Tell Them You Love Them

This seems like it should go without saying, but maybe the simplest thing you can do for someone close to you who’s sick is to tell them how much they mean to you. Author Bruce Feiler told NPR in 2011 that when he was diagnosed with bone cancer, he was most grateful to people who skipped platitudes or cliches and expressed their honest feelings:

“The most important, maybe even the simplest, is just ... a simple, direct expression of emotion,” he says. “‘I love you. I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I’m reaching out to you.’”

Feiler says such statements can make all the difference.

“These simple gestures really echo so deeply in the souls of the patient, because it makes that human connection,” he says. “Just talk about how you feel about the person, simply and directly. And perhaps that’s the best medicine you can give somebody.”

And finally, always remember that one of your best options is just to listen.


Comments

    A couple of these I wouldn't necessarily agree with,

    Don’t Give Medical Advice

    We have shared intelligence, it's impossible for one person to know everything. It is possible that a doctor hasn't heard of a treatment, or disregards it out of hand for no good reason, or that the doctor is just crap at their job. So it's definitely worth talking about different treatments so that person can at least discuss it with their doctor.

    Don’t Try To Figure Out Why

    For starters you've mushed the logic in this together with the logic of "Don’t Give Medical Advice". "the tendency to tell cancer patients about miracle cures" fits more into the first category.

    Now, I'd argue that trying to figure out why is a good thing, or at least an important thing. If people didn't do that we'd never know that asbestos is bad for us. Maybe the cancer is hereditary or maybe it's triggered by an environmental substance. If it's the latter then it's pretty important to figure that out and do something about it.

      The tone of this article appears to be about very serious illness where the patient is worried about dying. "Don't Give Medical Advice" is probably true if you know nothing about what you are talking about. Your point is that you may know or are willing to do a bit of research. It sort of depends on who is giving the advice? Recently I came out of hospital with multiple fractures torn ligaments and I was getting advice from a friend's wife via SMS about what I should be doing. I ignored the advice and followed my doctor's. Although well intentioned, it became annoying after the 4th one, where I felt I was defending my doctor's advice, who actually had some relevant schooling in the area and had also seen the Xrays and MRI images. However, with a close family member in hospital, and I am present when the doctor gives the diagnosis and treatment options, I am not only in a position to give advice but that advice will not only be informed but sought after. Someone suffering and on medication finds it difficult to take in all the information and rely on people close to help them. On the other hand if you come in late, without even the diagnostic information and offer up alternatives, it is often not helpful.

      Your examples of trying to figure out the cause are valid and useful, but often these questions are not, and this is not the time, and again are you the person to do it? I agree with you that some of the advice is wrong in many circumstances. I think if may all be prefaced with if you are visiting a friend in hospital, you are not a doctor, and not well informed about their diagnosis and treatment options these things are not conversation starters no matter how curious and concerned you are. To be fair to the author they did say they were talking about someone who was trying to ease the burden of being sick. But the advice is probably not very good if you are really involved in their treatments. In that case, a whole nother article might point out about keeping a medical diary, and taking notes during consultations that you can go over with the patient later.

      Last edited 20/07/18 9:34 am

        Just to be clear I wasn't advocating the scenario where you tell a sick person "hey do this" and they just do it. I believe that you should follow doctor's advice. However if a person has a suggestion it's definitely worth raising it with the doctor.

        In the past I've personally had a couple situations where the doctor didn't get it right and it was another person who suggested something. When I mentioned it to the doctor they ran tests and said "hey you're right". In that example, it wasn't life threatening but was seriously impacting my life (Ross River Fever) and the doctor was flat out giving me wrong information because he hadn't even considered it as a possibility.

        As for the "are you the person to do it", well that depends. If you're living in the same house then absolutely you should be asking. Possibly the same if you're a co-worker. If it's environmental then you could suffer the same illness. That said, you don't necessarily have to pretend you're one of House's pet doctors and pull apart the persons home. But it's worth talking to them about likely cause, whether the doctor has said anything (potentially talking to the doctor if your relationship with the patient allows it).

          I didn't think you were! I also think the article is wrong to paint everyone as being unqualified to help. As I said in a later post, patients often need help from friends and family. I would go further and say people who have supportive f&f get much better information and treatment. A sick person often finds it difficult to communicate their needs and symptoms when they are dazed from sickness and drugs. The article is really pretty superficial, lets' look at the references:
          Mondo Clariissian: someone who writes on Reddit about the proper way to get through an airport and not what to say to a sick person.
          Steven Thrasher: a journalist who wrote an op-ed about stupid things people say to cancer patients, i.e.suggest 'miracle cures'
          Barbara Ehrenreich: an author and political activist who wrote a book about positive thinking having negative consequences for America.
          Bruce Feiler: author who had cancer
          The authr: blogger and actress

          Not particularly good references.

      And advice to ask the doctor about x,y,z ... ?
      Doctors have limited time, and they have to strike a balance between information overload which just causes confusion and worry. But as a patient becomes better informed they will happily go into more detail. If your friends or family help you with this understanding all the better, you won't feel alone. This article does appear to be targeted towards people who just blurt out stupid stuff, to not do so.

        I'd debate the "happily" line. Some might but others act threatened if you question their high and mighty wisdom. Which immediately makes me want to get a different doctor.

        While I understand that they have limited time, the very nature of this (life threatening illness) suggests the patient has limited time as well. So devoting an extra minute or two to address concerns seems pretty fair to me. Even if the response is as simple as "yes we considered that possibility but it's not going to work in this case". At least that shows that the doctor considered it. They don't need to go super in depth about the details.

        I'd agree with you if the article is aimed just at the people who blurt out stupid stuff. But it didn't read that way to me, it read that it was aimed at everyone. And I know that if it's a family member who's seriously ill I'll be doing serious research not just blurting out "did you try ..." And I'd hope that my family/close friends would do the same.

          Yes it was aimed at everyone, that's why you and I were more than annoyed because its is very bad advice from people who are unqualified to give it!

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