Preventing foot in mouth disease

foot-in-mouthCancer is a scary topic and it’s hard to know what to say to someone who has it. I admire people who’ve taken the time to ask me questions, share some encouragement, and speak up even when it’s awkward. I’ve been overwhelmingly encouraged by the words of so many. It’s understandable that some people will simply want to avoid the topic, but there will likely be one or two who plunge right in with both feet in their mouths! For the most part, I’ve had very supportive and helpful things said to me, but here are a few things I’ve heard that you might want to avoid…

I know how you must feel.

Everyone’s experience is different. Most of us will know someone who has cancer, either now or previously, and we may have learned a lot from them. But it’s impossible to know how each person is handling it, or to understand their feelings, emotions, and thoughts. I’d suggest it’s far more helpful to ask how the person is feeling and then respond to what they are willing to share.

So how long have you got?

This is a brave question, but it’s kind of blunt, isn’t it! The truth is no one but God really knows. If the doctors have given a likely prognosis, it is simply that – likely, not guaranteed. We want to be in control and know how long we or others have to live, but it’s presumptuous to think that we can know the future. What’s more, if the doctors have warned that the patient does not have long to live, I doubt it will be encouraging to focus in on this.

Yeah, I had a friend/relative with cancer and they died…

It’s common when hearing of another’s experience to springboard into speaking of our own. I’ve heard (and participated in) some conversations that bounce backwards and forwards, with each person talking about their own stuff, without either acknowledging or engaging with what the other is saying. And besides, just because you know someone who’s died of cancer, it doesn’t mean that I will be encouraged to hear this!

Yeah, I had a friend/relative with cancer and they’re now completely healed…

Nor will it necessarily encourage me to keep hearing stories of remission, survival, wonder treatments, or miraculous healings. As I’ve said, everyone’s experience will be different. Even two people with the same cancer and receiving the same treatment will experience a different journey and have different outcomes. Having said this, I have found it helpful to hear words of empathy from those who are well experienced with the impact of cancer. It’s about engaging with one another, rather than just trading stories!

You’ll be right.

I might not be. What do you know, that I don’t? Positive thinking needs reason and substance behind it. Platitudes and blind optimism don’t offer much encouragement.

So what do you do with all your time?

People who are chronically ill often struggle with their lack of productivity. If they’ve previously been active, employed, and busy, then they could hear such a question as a criticism or judgment. While the question may be intended as a simple enquiry, it may induce grief and longing for better times.

I know God will heal you.

Do you really? How do you know? We need to be very careful about presuming to speak the will of God. A number of people have told me this already and, while I’m sure they are well intentioned, I’m a little suspicious. God hasn’t said anything specifically to me about it. While I pray that he will heal me, and I would love you to join in this prayer, I believe that God wants me to trust him whatever he has planned.

Let me say as I finish, that I haven’t written this to shut people up! It’s so important we talk with each other. I’m so grateful that people care enough to speak with me. It often takes real courage. Most people are keen to be encouraging and I want to express my appreciation. My prayer is that these words of mine will help us all to better support others who are are struggling. I recommend reading through the Book of Proverbs in the Bible which has many wise words to say about how we speak with one another. Try these:

12:18  The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

16:24  Gracious words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

16 thoughts on “Preventing foot in mouth disease”

    1. Hi Ian, let me assure you that your words on Sunday were of the sweet like honeycomb variety. Thank you for probing the wonders of the Psalm with us and for your conversation afterwards. We were most encouraged. Dave

  1. It was good to meet you on Sunday after all these years of email contact
    Thanks Dave for your comments – i guess i am one of the ones who avoids the topic, partly due to my fear of saying the “wrong thing”. I hope i remember your advice when i next face the situation. Sometimes when the person is someone you don’t know very well, you are not even sure if you are meant to know that the person has cancer. Hope that makes sense

  2. Dave, this is all really helpful stuff, thanks so much for writing this – I’m wondering if you would be able to perhaps do another blog entry at some point on the things you have found to be helpful/encouraging/comforting please? (or maybe you already have and I’ve missed it?!). Cheers, Cathy de Puit.

  3. Thanks this Dave. So good for someone in your position to help the rest of us know better how to be supportive and understanding of others. Much of what you said is also true of the kind of unhelpful and often very hurtful things people say to those who are chronically, though not terminally, ill. Wish I had a dollar for every time someone has told me they know what it is like for me to have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for 30 years because they had the flu for 2 weeks!
    So, so wonderful to see you and Fiona on Saturday. Much love, Fiona

  4. I am one of those people who are being asked the questions. Because I have lung cancer the first thing out of their mouths is “Did you smoke” what does that matter. What other cancer is there that people seem to blame you? I didn’t want cancer, but I got it, I’m dealing with it, so please just ask If I’m doing well.

  5. Some other comments I have had: (making the ones posted above seem almost kind in comparison)

    When told I had aches because the cancer had spread to the spine “Oh yes, my aunt died just a few days after the aches started in the bones”.

    “Yes, lung cancer is terrible – my uncle died a terrible death – he actually drowned from the fluid in his lung”
    Another one informed me they knew of someone who “died a terrible death because they suffocated from not being able to breath”.

    And these comments were from people I consider to be very kind !! What part of my sentence saying I – not someone else – have got lung cancer did they not hear??

  6. I guess one topic I’m really interested in here is humor. Does it help? Is it a bad idea? Does it depend? No-one’s tried it on me yet – it’d have to be good I think.

  7. I think the thing that I always try to remember is that the person with the cancer is a person, not the cancer. I found it quite weird (and frankly irritating) when my mum was ill that a some friends and relatives found it hard to even speak to her on the phone as they ‘didn’t know what to say’. She was still the same lovely person that she had always been, albeit now one with a nasty disease. And as a carer you also get the flow on effect where people forget you have the same need for ‘normality’ and avoid talking to you for fear of what to say- life goes on and the disease isn’t all encompassing to the point you have no other interests or thoughts.

  8. Thanks again Dave. Re the “I know you will be healed”, that was the phrase that caused the most pain for me and the one that made it hardest to go to church on Sundays (wanting to be with my church family) because it felt like a promise that I was convinced would not be delivered. Years later I heard a great sermon (Rev Jill Manton) about what we mean when we say “heal” in the “I know God will heal you”. In a nutshell, the trick for us as hearers is to focus on the healing of our hearts/relationships/spiritual selves and to genuinely be open to those things happening, even if the physical healing was not evident or likely (or clearly going the other way).
    For me, these words turned the sentiment around completely and became a reminder to remain open to God’s love for me, that I needed to remain within His love during the walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and that this time of preparing for death was an opportunity to spring-clean our relationships with some repairs and good housekeeping.
    I continue to think of the “healing” as ongoing – not just healing my loneliness or my sadness at being a single parent, but that I am now always able to choose to have a different kind of relationship with friends and family – that the special intimacy of being with someone as they are dying and addressing all those very big questions about what really matters, is carried into my relationships today while we are healthy. Perhaps that re-framing of the “I know God will heal you” might help??

    1. Hi Jen,

      Thank you for sharing how you have been helped to think through these words. I agree with you – God has been at work ‘healing’ me and others through my cancer already. I’m also confident that God will give me full healing in eternity and this far surpasses any reprieve in this life.

      I think I should also say that no matter what unthinking or dumb things people may have said, I’ve never actually taken offence at anything (so far). Humour is important for me in dealing with stuff. And so is assuming that people mean the best, even if it doesn’t come out right. I’d much prefer foot in mouth disease to people avoiding me cos they don’t know what to say or do.

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