Supporting cancer victims affects us all. At least once in your life someone will say to you, I have cancer, and when those three words are spoken, you may struggle to respond in a compassionate and helpful way. The compassion part may be easy in supporting cancer victims. In the misery of another, we see ourselves; if not in the present, than in our past or future. But does having compassion automatically result in  skillful behaviors when supporting cancer victims? I’ve wrestled with this question as someone living with cancer survivor for twelve years and for twenty-five years as a counselor of people coping with chronic illnesses. My conclusion is compassion isn’t enough.

The What and How of Compassion

His Holiness, The Dali Lama, wrote “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Thich Nhat Hanh, said, “Compassion means, literally, ‘to suffer with.’” For me, compassion is a what of Buddhist tradition. It says this is what we should be doing in supporting cancer victims, but not necessarily how to do it other than in general terms (e.g., acceptance, nonjudgmental, etc.).

supporting cancer victims The problem for many—including myself—is how to practice compassion in a way that is helpful to others. For example, is it compassionate to give a strung-out street person money knowing he will use it to buy drugs? Is it compassionate to tell your frightened mother who has terminal cancer she will survive? Some authors maintain answers to questions such as these come through meditation when we put ourselves in the place of others who are in great torment.

For me, meditation provides more whats than hows about supporting cancer victims, but rarely do hypotheticals translate into accurate understanding.

When Compassion Requires Facts: Supporting Cancer Victims

Driving from New York City to San Francisco is analogous to wanting to be compassionate in supporting cancer victims. The intents are clear; to arrive in San Francisco and to help a friend cope. You may be uncertain of the routes to take for the drive, so you go to a local travel office and ask, “How to I get to San Francisco?” A clerk points west and says “That way.” The directions are correct, but not specific enough to be helpful. I believe a similar problem exists in wanting supporting cancer victims and knowing how to implement it.

supporting cancer victimsThe difference between intent and practice was made clear to me by a hospice patient who described the difficulty her brother had when she informed him of her cervical cancer prognosis.They were close throughout their lives, and she regarded him as compassionate. He stumbled when faced with transforming compassion into practical behaviors. He understood his sister’s condition would deteriorate. She would soon need help in daily activities, such as food preparation and personal hygiene. His dilemma was in not knowing how to approach these issues with her. Should he assume she needed help, or should he wait until asked?

The gap between compassionate intent and support was not limited to her physical needs. He struggled with knowing when the time was right to discuss how he felt about her. What should he say that would ease her journey? Should he raise the possibility she might not survive or pretend everything would be fine? He assumed compassion would be easy to actualize. But it wasn’t. It involved a series of choices about how to be compassionate.

You may believe supporting cancer victims only requires responses based on concepts such as “active listening,” “acceptance,” “openness,” “honesty,” and “being present.” According to people living with and dying from cancer, what they crave is specificity, not just generalities. There is immense gratitude for the compassion shown to us, but we need more.

Our Invitation and Your Responsibility

Think of “compassion” as what separates you from other people we encounter. You’re the type of person we want in our lives—and for some, our deaths. We are inviting you into a world that’s constantly changing, chaotic, and quite often frightening. We’ll ask you to transform intentions into actions if you accept our invitation. Below are six of the many areas in which your loved one or friend may ask for help. How would you respond without referring to the above general concepts? In other words, what would you do?

1) What will you do when I share my diagnosis with you?

2) How will you react to my fluctuating emotions?

3) What can you do to compensate for my accumulated losses?

4) What will you communicate to me and how will you do it?

5) When I experience emotional or physical pain, how will you help me?

6) What will you do if my prognosis is terminal?

Coping with cancer is a complex and messy journey for those of us experiencing it and friends and loved ones accompanying us. Supporting cancer victims requires both compassionate intent and practical knowledge merged as skillful, useful actions. Real compassion requires doing, not just feeling. If you couldn’t answer just one of the six questions, you might be interested in “I Have Cancer” 48 Things To Do When You Hear Those Words, available now on Amazon as a $3.49 ebook.

5 Responses

    • Stan Goldberg

      Intuitively, that’s correct. But my conversations with people living with cancer indicates they (we) feel more comfortable with specifics (e.g., “can I do your grocery shopping tomorrow?)

      Reply
      • Ken

        Mmmm….That sounds like I could be going through a long list of possibilities. What’s the difficulty with asking for what I want, how I would like to be helped, instead of putting someone through a Q&A session? I’m not sure if women and children would respond the same way as men, i.e. often men struggle with asking for what they need, let alone what they want.

      • Stan Goldberg

        My answer is based on what people living with cancer have told me. Asking for and accepting help for many people is more than it may seem. Needing help means acknowledging you are beginning on an unpleasant path; possibly one ending in death.

        If the helpful people starts with the assumption that there is a reluctance to accept help–not because it isn’t needed, but of what it implies–offers to help should be weighed against how the offer will be interpreted. Being specific doesn’t mean you’re engaging in a question and answer session. It makes the offer less psychologically threatening. “Is there anything I can do,” implies there is or will be a general decline in functioning–something the person may not yet be able to accept. “Can I take you to the market tomorrow?” is less threatening by being specific.

        Sometimes the subtitles in how a message is taken can be all the difference if an offer to help to accepted or it’s intension distorted.

        It may seem more efficient to keep your question general. Unfortunately, it’s often implies a level of concern that’s misinterpreted.

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About The Author

I am an author of eight books in four languages. LESSONS FOR THE LIVING: STORIES OF FORGIVENESS, GRATITUDE AND COURAGE AT THE END OF LIFE is my memoir of being a bedside hospice volunteer for six years while battling prostate cancer. My next book, LEANING INTO SHARP POINTS: PRACTICAL GUIDANCE AND NURTURING SUPPORT FOR CAREGIVERS will be published in March, 2012 by New World Library and focus on caregiving for loved ones who have a progressive or terminal illness.