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How to Talk About Illness With Loved Ones

A patient’s perspective on supporting your friends and family through sickness.

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Two women having a serious discussionPhoto: ShutterStock

Tips for Talking About Illness With Loved Ones

It’s happened more times than I can count. I’ll be drinking coffee with a friend, listening to her talk about a problem in her personal or professional life, when she stops and stammers, “I shouldn’t complain about this to you. Your situation is so much worse.”

After four years of living with recurrent ovarian cancer, I should be inured to statements like these, but I’ve never really adjusted to being an object of pity. I’m sure my friends mean well when they restrain themselves from complaining, but knowing they think it’s unfair to confide in me because of my health makes me feel awful. It’s hard to support someone who’s sick-there’s no right way to approach it, and it’s easy to feel at 
a loss for words. Here are a few things to keep in mind when talking about illness.

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It's Okay to Discuss Other Things

It’s Okay to Discuss Other Things

When someone is newly diagnosed, it can feel like the only thing people want to hear about is how they’re feeling and what the doctor is saying. Diya Dadlani, a social worker and facilitator at Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto, an organization for those affected by cancer, offers this advice: “Treat your loved one as you would have before cancer. Acknow­ledge that there is a change, verbalize it and be honest, but don’t alter your friendship because of it.” Keep doing the things you did before your friend became sick, as much as the illness will allow, and make sure to have conversations that aren’t centred on blood test results and CT scans. Be mindful of how your friend is feeling; if you aren’t sure whether they are comfortable discussing certain topics, just ask.

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Don't Look for Silver Linings

Don’t Look for Silver Linings

“Now you have time to write that novel!” “You got the good cancer!” “Think of it as a vacation!” We’re hard-wired to search for the positive in every situation, but looking on the bright side might come across as dismissive of the grief and fear that accompany a diagnosis. If your friend is upset about losing her hair, don’t try to make things better by telling her how much time she’ll save in the shower. Know when to stay quiet.

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Avoid Labels Like

Avoid Labels Like “Brave” and “Inspirational”

It may not be immediately obvious what the problem is with these compliments-who wouldn’t want to be seen as brave or inspirational? But such comments can make a person feel as though they should be strong all the time, even when they don’t feel that way. Likewise, avoid the war metaphors that are so often tossed around. Referring to a person’s experience with disease as a “battle” can unintentionally suggest that the individual who is sick is responsible for whether they “win” or “lose” based on how hard they fight. If your friend finds comfort in battle imagery or terms like “sur­vivor,” respect that, but don’t label them as such if they haven’t explicitly claimed the title themselves.

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Be Specific and Proactive

Be Specific and Proactive

In the midst of a health crisis, it can be difficult to think of jobs to delegate. “Sometimes the person who is ill can’t see outside the box,” says Dadlani. Be observant: identify what needs to be done and offer to do it, and provide suggestions, whether it’s driving your friend to an appointment, picking up prescriptions or cooking and delivering a meal every few days. Rather than saying, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” ask specifically, “What can 
I help with this week?”

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If You're Sick...

If You’re Sick…

Clearly express what topics you’re comfortable discussing and what you would rather avoid. If you feel pushed to talk about something you’d rather not, say gently but firmly, “I’d like to change the subject.”

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Designate a Spokesperson

Designate a Spokesperson

Answering the same questions over and over is exhausting, but there are ways to minimize repetition. Designate a spokesperson to keep concerned family and friends informed, or blog, tweet, email or post updates on Facebook.

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Take Your Time

Take Your Time

Sometimes you won’t want to talk about your illness; maybe you need time to process test results, or perhaps you don’t want to think about being sick. Don’t expect your loved ones to be mind readers. If it isn’t the right time to talk, say so.