Supportive Care for People Living with Cancer
By Ilyse Streim, Massage Therapist
Center for Integrative Medicine, Good Samaritan Medical Center
Do you have a loved one who is facing a cancer diagnosis and treatment? Are you
looking for a way to support them on this difficult, often isolating journey? Our
Integrative staff is specially trained to work with cancer patients to help ease the
stress of a diagnosis and the symptoms that result from cancer treatment.
“Integrative oncology” is a growing frontier in patient care and major cancer
centers such as Memorial Sloan Kettering offer integrative medicine services
which “enable conventional treatments to remain relentless on the malignancy but
as gentle as possible on the patient. Often, that involves acupuncture, massage,
yoga and even some lesser known practices, such as music therapy and the feather
touch of reiki…today doctors not only give nodding acceptance to complementary
care but outright encouragement”. *
Because nausea, fatigue, and chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy are
some of the most common reasons that patients stop treatment early, therapies such
as massage and acupuncture are important complementary adjuncts that can help a
patient stay on track with treatment which is subsequently more comfortable and
Our comprehensive cancer support services include:
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Treating your loved one to an acupuncture session or massage is a tremendous
expression of support. Another means of support is to sit down and really listen and
be a witness to their journey. Here is a wonderful article on the most supportive
ways to communicate with a person living with cancer.
What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient
By Jane E. Brody Nov. 28, 2016, New York Times
What do you think is the most commonly asked question of a person who has, or
has had, cancer? If you guessed, “How are you?” you got it right. But as caring as
those words may seem, they are often not helpful and may even be harmful. At a
celebratory family gathering a year after my own cancer treatment, a distant
relative asked me just that. I answered, “I’m fine.” She then pressed, “How are you
really?” “Really” I was fine, I told her. But what if I hadn’t been? Would I have
wanted to launch into a description of bad medical news at what was supposed to
be a fun event? Would I have wanted even to be reminded of a bout with cancer?
Although my relative undoubtedly meant well, the way her concern was expressed
struck me as intrusive.
A diagnosis of cancer can tie the tongues of friends and family members or prompt
them to utter inappropriate, albeit well-meaning, comments. Some who don’t know
what to say simply avoid the cancer patient altogether, an act that can be more
painful than if they said or did the wrong thing. A new book, Loving, Supporting,
and Caring for the Cancer Patient, by a man who has been treated for a potentially
life-threatening cancer and who has counseled dozens of others dealing with this
disease, got me thinking about the best ways to talk with someone facing cancer —
its diagnosis, treatment and aftermath. The book’s author, Stan Goldberg, happens
to be a communications specialist, a professor emeritus of communicative
disorders at San Francisco State University.
Dr. Goldberg learned at age 57 that he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer.
He said in an interview that cancer patients too often encounter people who assume
the role of cheerleader, saying things like “Don’t worry about it,” “You’ll be fine,”
“We’ll battle this together,” “They’ll find a cure.” However, he observed, “Words
of optimism may work in the short run, but in the long run they can induce guilt if
the cancer is more virulent and defeats a person’s best effort. “I was dealing with
the possibility that my life would end shortly, or if it didn’t, it would be changed
dramatically. False optimism devalued what was going on in my body. People were
insensitive not from a lack of compassion but from not knowing what is really
What he and those he’s counseled have found to be most helpful were not words
but actions, not “Let me know what I can do to help,” which places the burden on
the patient, but “I’ll be bringing dinner for your family this week. What day is best
for you?” As a self-described “independent cuss” reluctant to ask anyone for help,
Dr. Goldberg said his son taught him this important lesson. “He came to my house
during my recovery from surgery and said ‘Stop lifting those boxes, Dad. I’ll do it
Another author of very helpful books on living with cancer is Dr. Wendy Schlessel
Harpham, who has had a recurring cancer for more than two decades. She suggests
that people offer specific ways they can help. For example, they may say they can
shop for groceries, care for children, take the dog for a run, or accompany the
patient to the doctor, and then be sure to follow through with the offer. Many
people now use online sites like caringbridge.org to keep people up to date on their
health and needs or organizing platforms such as mealtrain.com or
lotsahelpinghands.com to ask for specific help. Dr. Harpham said she came to
dread the query “How are you?” because “no matter how it was intended, being
asked ‘How are you?’ rattled my heightened sense of vulnerability. I found myself
consoling those who asked and then fighting the contagion of grief and fear. Even
when the news was good, I didn’t have the energy to include all the people who
Dr. Goldberg suggests that when visiting a cancer patient, people talk less and
listen more. ”Often the greatest support comes from silently witnessing what a
person with cancer is experiencing,” he wrote. “Sometimes only a calm presence
and compassionate listening are necessary. Silence becomes the breathing space in
which people living with cancer can begin difficult conversations.” In an article in
Prevention magazine, Melissa Fiorenza offered this helpful suggestion for what to
say to someone you deeply care for: “Feel free to cry with me, to talk, or not to
talk. I’ll take my lead from you.” When talking, Dr. Goldberg suggested, “engage
more in conversations and less in question-and-answer interactions.” But if
questions are asked, they should be open-ended ones like “Do you want to tell me
about your cancer and what you’re going through? Maybe I can find ways to be
Among the many suggested “don’ts” are these:
• Don’t make light of a patient’s physical changes by saying things like “At least
you finally lost those extra pounds.”
• Don’t talk about other patients with similar cancers, even if they fared well —
no two cancers are alike. It’s fine, though, to ask if the patient would like to talk
with someone else who’s been through it.
• Don’t say the patient is lucky to have one kind of cancer rather than another,
which downplays what the person is going through. There’s nothing lucky about
having cancer even if it’s a “good” cancer.
• Don’t say “I know how you feel” because you can’t possibly know. Better to ask,
“Do you want to talk about how you feel, how having cancer is affecting you?”
• Don’t offer information about unproven treatments or referrals to doctors with
• Don’t suggest that the person’s lifestyle is to blame for the disease, even if it
may have been a contributing cause. Blame is not helpful. Many factors influence
cancer risk; even for lifelong smokers, getting cancer is often just bad luck.
• Don’t preach to the patient about staying positive, which can induce feelings of
guilt in the patient if things don’t go well. Better to say, “I’m here for you no
matter what happens,” and mean it.
• Don’t ask about prognosis. If the patient volunteers that information, it’s O.K.
to talk further about its implications. Otherwise, it’s better to stifle your curiosity.
• Don’t burden the patient with your own feelings of distress, although it’s fine
to say, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” If you feel overwhelmed by the
prospect of interacting with a person with cancer, it’s better to say, “I don’t know
what to say” than to say nothing at all or to avoid the person entirely, who may
then feel abandoned and think you don’t care.
A version of this article appears in print on November 29, 2016, on Page D5 of the
New York edition with the headline: What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient.
* CURE magazine, Laura Beil, http://www.curetoday.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/