“We encounter advice all the time, especially unsolicited advice, and as cancer patients, the amount of advice we receive seems relentless. The intent is always good. I have yet to meet someone purposely trying to hurt me through their advice, even though the advice itself is sometimes harmful, like ingesting baking soda. Unfortunately, it won’t cure my cancer, but it could kill me.
You have cancer? An alkaline diet with lemon water will cure you.
You have cancer? Go to church and confess your sins. God will cure you.
You have cancer? Just think positive (because only negative people die from cancer).
Let’s be honest. No one likes unsolicited advice. At least not in the way we give it. It comes across as insulting, often belittling and condescending.
Advice that I often get is about insomnia, which I’ve struggled with for months from being on a high dose of steroids, dexamethasone, and sleeping in a hospital. If you want good food, sleep, and relaxation, go somewhere tropical because a hospital is the last place, you’ll get it.
A loved one recently said, out of the blue, ’Christa, for insomnia, limit your screen time before bed, get exercise, and eat well.’
I looked at him, with one cocked eyebrow and said, ‘Yes I’ve been doing those things.’
And then he continued. ’Meditation is good at helping you relax.’
‘I’ll stop you there. It’s okay. I’ve literally tried everything.’
‘Reading is also good before bed.’
Thanks Captain Obvious. I’m annoyed because here’s someone who has never suffered from insomnia and is dolling out prescriptions. Even if he had insomnia in the past, he hasn’t considered what I’ve already tried before dishing out advice. With strangers, a lot of cancer patients would say thanks and end the conversation, even though they really want to say buzz off or throat punch them. Again, the intent is always good, but the impact can have the opposite effect.
Another loved one pointed out a well-known cancer website, years into my diagnosis.
‘Here is a cancer website you should look at.’
If only they started with a question, they would have known that I already knew about it or perhaps rephrased their comment, ’I just came across this website, you probably have seen it already, but I just want to make sure it’s on your radar.’
Do you see how the first comment assumes ignorance and is framed as a directive and the second focuses on sharing information while acknowledging that it might already be known?
I rephrased the conversation about insomnia with my loved one to show that you can have an impact on others without it seeming like a lecture.
‘Christa, I heard you have insomnia. I’m so sorry. That’s rough. What things have you been trying?’ or ‘Christa have you tried meditation? I have some good suggestions for apps if you’re interested.’
Ask questions to find out what they’ve done before sharing advice.
For example, my friend with ovarian cancer recently said that she’s had more pain lately. I asked if she uses a heating pad and told her that mine is called ‘Channing’ because he’s so hot. She excitedly told me about a long pad she has that covers her whole body. Imagine if I said, ‘You should try heating pads.’ That would have been insulting.
I’m not perfect though. I misspeak all the time. I mean all the time. ‘No that came out wrong’ and then I rephrase it is part of my regular communication. Naturally, I blame brain surgery, but here’s a little secret, it happened well before surgery. With practice, we get better.
We quite often communicate poorly. Some might say we’ve become too sensitive. But imagine if we asked more questions when talking, instead of just focusing on what we have to say. We’d communicators better, have more fulfilling relationships, take less offence, and have the impact that we want. We would fill each other’s cups.
I’m not saying to not give advice but perhaps we could phrase it in a way that’s actually helpful and focuses on sharing rather than prescribing information. Your intent is to help the person. Do it in a way that’s helpful, rather than what could be felt as harmful.”
This story was written by Christa Wilkin, 34, of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. You can read more of her work at Nevertheless She Persisted. Submit your story here, and be sure to subscribe to our best love stories here.
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