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When best-selling author Bruce Feiler was diagnosed with bone cancer inhe was thankful for the many prayers, postcards and casseroles that loved ones sent his way. But there were things many friends, family and acquaintances would say that — despite the best of intentions — simply didn't help. Sympathetic to the fact that many people simply don't know what to say, Feiler compiled a list of the top phrases to avoid for The New York Times. According to Feiler, the commonly heard cliche "You look great" is particularly obnoxious. Feiler advises, "Be careful about pointing out to people — reminding them — that they may not look good.

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Cancer is not one disease and there is more than one way of coping with a diagnosis.

While some patients research every aspect of their illness, treatment, and prognosis, others would rather have their physicians sift through information and chart a particular course of action for them. I recognize that there is a lot of good advice in his piece, and I want to acknowledge how hard it is to write a short article about such an important and personal topic. I think that opening up this subject to a larger discussion may allow readers to see the variation in reactions: remarks are interpreted in a variety of ways by different listeners.

Even the same remark may be interpreted as harmless one day and loaded the next; hard and fast rules are unlikely to apply. Thus far on my blog I have resisted writing rules about what people should and should not say. Readers have forwarded many such lists to me for my opinion.

“‘you look great’ and other lies”

I was often annoyed with the comments people made. While I reacted negatively to some things people said, I still felt that in most cases their intentions were good. The danger is that people will do something even worse than the things Feiler mentions: they may remain silent and not offer any help or express any affection at all for fear of saying the wrong thing.

Frequently I found myself in the position of comforting others about my own diagnosis or that of one of their relatives. My recommendation is to avoid telling a person with cancer about your friend or relative who either had it and has lived 20 years implies their fears are unwarranted or that a person you know died a terrible death discouraging.

That is, the expectations we have for what others should say to or do for us varies in relation to how close we are to them. Now, on to more actual details of the piece. He claims food was one of his great helps and implies that this is a safe way to offer help to those in need. I explicitly forbade food to be brought to my house.

One friend reported that while her son was being treated for leukemia, well-wishers sent so many lasagnas that her kids could no longer look at the dish after a few weeks of receiving them. Similarly, smells eminating from food can often be offensive during chemotherapy.

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Clean out my fridge, replace my light bulbs, unpot my dead plants, change my oil. I do agree with him that being more forceful about helping is the right way to go, just not to the degree he does. Further, those who are ill may take pride in being able to accomplish a task themselves.

I wanted to be able to do small tasts to contribute to taking care of the house.

But you look so good and other lies: a memoir

Arranging for a cleaning service to come might be more helpful. Offering to do grocery shopping or be available to receive an online grocery delivery might be good, too. There is a whole post I could write about suggestions for how to help a friend. Others pray for you, which is equally comforting. First, I think this is an extrememly personal reaction. How a person deals with severe illness is highly charged. However, it also smacked of illogicality; why pray now? Feiler assumes again that what is good for him is good for all— not all people with cancer will find prayers comforting.

I believe that to be true. I counsel: empty phrases said without emotional authenticity are likely to fall flat with the recipient.

I think what Feiler is sensitive to is that we have no way of knowing if it is in our particular case that someone is lying or not. Also, many people appreciate being told they look great, even if the truth is questionable. While I thought it, and believe it I guess Ms. I loved when people told me I looked good. I looked sick, of course. But the effort I took to put makeup on or compliments to how I wore a scarf to coordinate with my outfit were nice. On a day I felt sad I always loved a compliment. The irony is that illnesses that are invisible can be harder to live with.

These situations strike fear in all of us because being healthy makes us feel protected. I again revert to the advice that you should say what you honestly believe.

My advice: let those who need to use it do so. When a friend got her own diagnosis of breast cancer, she assumed she would easily be able to opt out of being a Girl Scout troop leader during surgery and chemotherapy time.

Some of the responses there are definitely statments I would caution people to think twice about saying. I also heard:. And there are many more. There is an anger that can divide friends and family once a person is diagnosed with an illness.

But you look so good and other lies

I quickly learned that physical pain and emotional agony trumped all; I had little patience or care for others when I was hurting. I learned to withdraw during those times or only discuss it with those who did understand. My hypersensitivity was undestandable but not necessarily easy to be around. The desire to be understood is part of how the ill connect, attract, and cling to one another.

The fact that most people with a serious illness can rattle off offensive or ineffectual questions or comments made to them means they are important. In those cases you may lose people who may have been well-intentioned. Sometimes forgiveness and compassion need to go out from the person who is sick and not just flow to them.

Tagged cancerdeathfriendshipillness. Lisa, I could not have said it better! And as you say, most importantly of all — say something! Be there. For me, caring for my parents I had this strange need for everyone to continue to behave normally but to acknowledge that there was something difficult and trying going on in my world.

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Lovely response Lisa. I think striving to stay connected in positive ways through all the murk is always the best choice… the details will be sorted out along the way. But, staying there in those difficult moments — priceless. Upon reflection, one of the things I valued most during treatment and recovery was honesty.

This worked for me because it helped open a line of communication and helped me to ask for help if I needed it.

Lisa, I learn so much from your posts. You write beautifully.

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Thank you for this. I usually just treat the person as I always do and listen closely. Most friends know that they can talk to me about anything and often the conversation will come around to it. However, when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I was totally unprepared. I just remember it being very uncomfortable for both of us.

After reading the article, I had basically the same reaction as you did. Instead of outlawing that question, he should have just made the list in the first place. Hi Lisa, I have a few comments to make, based on my experience as the daughter of someone who died from lung cancer 1 month from diagnosis to death when I was The other is my own encounter with breast cancer. I was in my first year of nursing school and we were on break.

She went into the hospital around Thanksgiving and never came home again. She was a single mom and I was alone in the world. I remember walking into the lounge area at school where all my fellow-nursing students were hanging out. Everyone knew and no one said anything to me. They ignored me really. I understood. We look all young and this sort of thing had not happened yet to most of them. How are YOU doing? That encounter shaped me as a nurse and as a person who has had to and to people in treatment and families, both personally and professionally.

This girl somehow knew that what I needed was for someone to acknowledge that the biggest lie that could happen to me, the loss of a parent at 18 my mom was 50had happened. Do you have pajamas that button in the front? I did let people help me with other things because I feel that it lets them know you trust them enough to be part of your inner support network. People feel so helpless and giving them a job let them feel that they really helped me.

Taking the kids can be priceless when you are tired and tired of trying not to look like you feel terrible or scared. I also attended a cancer support group for all kinds of cancer with my husband, a doctor. We felt odd going at first since WE are usually the ones giving support to others and not the vulnerable ones.

That was the smartest thing I did because it was the one great where you could say what you needed to say, laugh, cry, express the fears and feel the support You people who totally got it and were not afraid of you or your illness.

One of the several complications I had was an infection around one of the expanders. My usual plastic surgeon was away and I had someone else. The issue was whether to take me back to surgery to remove the one expander, heal and start over or try an aggressive antibiotic treatment. All of us are different, I think.