“To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”
Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt
“Oh, my grandmother had that kind of cancer—she didn’t last long.”
“Just stay positive and you’ll be fine.”
“My neighbor had that—he was in a lot of pain.”
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle!”
Heard any of these insensitive (dare I say stupid) remarks? I’ve heard them all and then some. I remember bumping into a church friend at the grocery store shortly after I began chemo back in 1990. She apologized for not being in touch with me.
“I thought I heard you were going to die. I didn’t know if that was true, so I just didn’t know what to do,” she quickly spit out.
She kept babbling for a while, and I remember I ended up trying to comfort her in the fresh vegetable aisle.
I think relatives, friends, and acquaintances are usually at a loss for words when they hear about someone’s diagnosis or recurrence, so they say something to either a) try to identify with the person or b) try to lift the person’s spirits. Often they succeed with neither, especially when they immediately begin quoting Bible verses.
My Arkansas physician-friend Tom has been dealing with prostate cancer since 2000. He knows exactly what I mean.
“When people told me ‘all things work together for good’ or otherwise dismissed my fear, anxiety, or sadness, it upset me,” Tom recalls. “It doesn’t sound good when you are in the midst of a tornado. It made me feel like they had no idea what I was really going through.”
That same verse from Romans 8:28 was quoted to my western New York friend Ken moments after he was given the devastating news of tongue cancer that required life-altering surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
“I only heard the first few words and wanted to scream at my friend, ‘Stop! Just stop!’” he recalls fourteen cancer-free years later.
I’m willing to bet you can remember some not-very-helpful comments made to you or your loved one. How do we handle such insensitivity?
I like former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice: To handle others, use your heart. We need to hear beyond people’s words and instead hear their hearts.
Do you think my friend at the grocery store saw me standing by the romaine lettuce and thought, I’ll walk over to Lynn and say something that will make her feel really bad? Or I plan to fall apart so much she’ll end up comforting me?
Of course not. I’m sure her heart was feeling love for me and concern over my well-being, however poorly she expressed it. And the same was surely true for the Bible-quoting friends of Tom and Ken.
Think about the last cancer-related (or any other life-struggle) conversation you had with someone that left you feeling worse instead of better. Ask yourself whether you think that was the person’s intention. If yes, I recommend you speak with someone who can help you establish healthy boundaries with a spiteful person! But if you answered no, then throw away that person’s words and just hear his or her heart for you. Replay the scenario like I did and consider whether the person really wanted to make you feel bad. (This also works well in other situations whenever people don’t act the way we wish they would; e.g. I had to ask myself today, Do I really think my husband wanted to annoy me by eating the last Planters Peanut Bar while I was busy writing a book to help people facing cancer?)
We always want people to give us the benefit of the doubt or cut us some slack, but we have to admit, it’s not always easy to do the same for others—especially when our world has been rocked by a life-altering event. Our emotions are fragile, our bodies are hurting, and our spirits can be wounded easily. That makes it hard to be patient with well-meaning but insensitive folks. Nevertheless, if we want to find peace in the face of cancer (or any other difficulty), sometimes we will have to hear people’s hearts and ignore their words (and perhaps their actions, too).
I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. –Jesus, speaking in John 14:27
We experience peace when we hear people’s hearts and not just their words.
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