November 19, 2007
Nothing personal, but keep your advice to yourself
Elizabeth and John Edwards recently announced that her breast cancer had returned. They also announced that he was staying in the presidential race.
There was a national debate as to whether they were making the right decision. The implication was that she should prioritize her (apparently limited) time to be with her kids.
My reaction was to fling things in the general direction of my television and shout, "It's their decision to make!"
One thing I've learned from working in cancer education and advocacy is that there's no right way or wrong way to live with cancer. And no one has the right to judge others for the decisions they've made.
The Edwardses' situation is more high-profile than most, but nearly everyone who gets cancer receives unwanted advice.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, people suggested what I should eat, where I should go for treatment, and what political movements to get involved in. People offering these suggestions were from all walks of life and had a variety of motivations. What they had in common was that I had not asked for their advice.
The best support a friend or family member can provide is not to give advice, but to listen without judgment or agenda. The patient usually needs to process what's going on and a good way to do that is to talk and think out loud. The quickest way to shut down that kind of conversation is to give unsolicited advice.
Sometimes a patient will tell me, "I want to do this, but my (spouse, child, parent, friend) wants me to do something else." The patient is afraid they'll hurt their loved one's feelings if they don't follow their advice.
I recognize the irony of my writing on this topic since my job is to give advice to people diagnosed with cancer. The key issue, of course, is whether the advice has been requested. And, in reality, I rarely give advice. What I do is to help people identify options and then help them make informed decisions.
People who have had cancer in the past should be especially sensitive when giving advice to the newly diagnosed. Their assistance is invaluable and I personally benefited from talking with others who had "been there." But it's important not to tell people what to do. There's a significant difference between saying, "I did this and found it quite helpful" versus saying, "You should do this."
I wish Elizabeth and John Edwards well as they live their lives the best way they know how. And I wish the same for White House Press Secretary Tony Snow who also experienced a recurrence of cancer last week. For a public figure with cancer, the best we can do is send our thoughts and prayers. But if a loved one has cancer, we can listen. It's the best gift we'll ever give.
This article originally appeared in the Ithaca Journal, April 5, 2007.