Shutting Down Unwanted Cancer Advice


During the holiday season, cancer patients get a lot of well-intentioned but unhelpful advice. Here's how to make it stop.

Even after nearly three years of ongoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer, there is always someone new — and often someone again — telling me how I can cure myself.

I’m not a confrontational person and I understand that usually the person instructing me on mistakes I’ve made or changes I could make is doing so out of love and concern. I don’t want to get in an argument. I don’t want to hurt feelings or sound strident about what I know from paying attention over the past three years.

I sometimes choose to remain silent as someone explains about diets or vitamins or cider or whatever “cure” is currently making the rounds on social media. I get it. Before my diagnosis, whenever confronted by a person with cancer, I’d silently reassure myself that could never be me. I was too young. I mostly ate the right things. I exercised.

The problem with staying silent is that it steals my power and confidence. The family member who walks away thinking he’s given me a chance to save my life if I only put into practice his advice feels satisfied and empowered. I feel small and, basically, stupid in his eyes and, too often, my own. Of course, staying silent also means the other person leaves without being educated about actual scientific research and the personal experiences of someone living with stage 4 disease.

So, in light of the approaching holidays that put us all in contact with acquaintances, co-workers and family members who have a lot of well-intentioned advice, I’ve outlined tips to avoid confrontation while giving myself a voice.

Listen first. Whether you’ve been hearing the suggestion for years, as in my case, or this is the first time learning that, for instance, coffee enemas are the cure, the person who’s doing the talking doesn’t need to be immediately shut down. I try to remind myself that she believes what she’s saying, thinks it’s something I’ve never heard before, wants to save my life, and, most importantly, doesn’t know any better. I listen first, at least to a few sentences.

Don’t apologize. I do my best to not say “I’m sorry, but…” That’s because whenever I’ve done so, the other person seems to believe that means I am open to further discussion about treatments that I know hold no merit. If I must be blunt, I simply say that I'm following the advice of medical professionals I trust.

Lead with a fact. I’ve got several at my disposal, and which one I use depends on the conversation. In my circle, discussions about breast cancer typically fall into two categories. The first is the idea that breast cancer is easily cured. This insulting view, which discounts everything about my life and the lives of so many people I know, is one that deserves a response every single time. My go to: “Metastatic breast cancer deaths have not budged in decades, they remain at about 40,000 a year. For U.S. women, breast cancer death rates are higher than that for any other cancer except lung cancer. Even deaths due to car accidents are less than that 40,000.”

Follow with a fact. The other common view I hear is about the value of alternative treatments, both to avoid cancer and to treat it. Again, I find that using a fact, this one from a recent study at Yale University, is helpful: “78 percent of people having conventional treatment for cancer survived at least five years, compared to only 55 percent of people having alternative treatment alone. For breast cancer, people who chose alternative treatments were more than five times as likely to die within five years than those who chose conventional treatment.” If that doesn’t give someone pause, nothing will.

Give a little. I will often talk about my own experience with things like meditation, qi gong, exercise and healthy eating to remind the other person that we don't have to argue in stark opposition.

Be kind, not silent. Say something like, “It’s hard to confront illnesses that could end our lives. I try to be both optimistic and realistic with this disease.” If I have to, I explain the facts again and point out positive developments due to scientific advances.

Change the subject. I have one relative who, whenever I see him, brings up the teachings of an alternative-medicine specialist. Chances are good that there's someone similar in your life. I try to preemptively control the conversation by asking for specifics about his kids, his retirement, his house—anything other than his health or my own.

Hold up a mirror. As is true in dating, most people would rather talk about themselves. If someone seems bent on discussing illness, I make it about their own health and offer nothing about mine. You’d be surprised how quickly someone can forget he’s talking to someone with incurable cancer.

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