“Fighting” cancer: inspiring or discouraging?

August 14, 2019 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Your best friend or loved one has been diagnosed with cancer and very often the first instinct is to talk about them “fighting back” or “beating cancer.”

There has been much discussion in recent years about battle or war analogies, and whether those are appropriate to use when talking about cancer.

For many, using war or battle analogies can leave them feeling that they’re not fighting hard enough or that the battles lost are their fault. For others, those same terms can be inspiring and help get them through tough rounds of chemotherapy or treatment.

So what’s the best way to talk with your friend or loved one about their treatments, how they are feeling or their diagnosis?

The answer, quite simply, is to listen and take your cues from the person living with cancer.

“You need to listen and see how they are describing their experiences,” says Linda Conlin, LCSW, psychosocial program manager at Edward-Elmhurst Health. “Sometimes the words that they use to describe it will change throughout their treatment.”

While it’s important to be aware that some may choose to steer clear of those analogies, Conlin notes that others find inspiration in those same terms and use them as they talk about fighting back or beating cancer.

When Alex Trebek, the longtime host of “Jeopardy,” revealed he had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, he vowed to fight and “beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease.” Many well-wishers also used similar terminology when Sen. John McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer.

“Some people don’t like that analogy and other people are fine,” says Conlin. “You really need to listen to the person who is going through it and see how they describe it in words. Honor what they’re saying to you and listen to that because it’s very personal to them.”

Even if you aren’t sure what to say, just show up and offer support and encouragement, Conlin says. A few dos and don’ts to remember include:

  • Do offer your support and encouragement, even if you aren’t sure what to say. Don’t withdraw from your friend or loved one, sometimes just being there to listen is enough.
  • Don’t blame their lifestyle for the cancer. “You don’t ever want to put the person in a victim role or blame them for getting a certain diagnosis. Lift them up and be there for them,” Conlin says.
  • Don’t assume you know how they feel just because you know someone else living with cancer.
  • Do offer help, but make the offer specific. If you’re running out for groceries, give your friend a call and ask if they need you to stop for something while you are out. Your friend is more likely to take you up on a specific offer of help than a “call me if you need anything” offer.
  • Don’t assume that just because your friend looks good on the outside that they’re feeling good. Ask them how they’re doing and listen. “It’s important for them to know that they are able to talk to you and that they don’t always have to maintain a positive attitude. They have a right to have a rough time or have a bad day. Being able to express that helps,” Conlin says.

At Edward-Elmhurst Health Cancer Centers, you’ll be cared for by an experienced and compassionate team of experts who are on the front line of direct patient care and who work together to meet your individual needs. Learn more about our compassionate, personalized cancer care.

Related blogs:

What to say to someone recently diagnosed with cancer

Virtual support groups bring cancer patients together

You’ve got a friend in me: how to help someone with cancer


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