His own diagnosis, 16 years ago, came “completely out of the blue.” Not only did Bob Riter have cancer, he had breast cancer—less than one percent of which occurs in men. “It’s sort of like being hit by an asteroid,” he says. Cancer turned out to be life-changing in more ways than one. Today Riter, MHSA ’80, is executive director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes in Ithaca, New York, and the author of The Elephant in the Room: Practical Advice When the Diagnosis Is Cancer, a compilation of essays culled from a bimonthly column he writes for the local newspaper. The former Ithaca College professor says he sometimes worries that he’s a “buzzkill” at parties. “Here comes the cancer guy,” he imagines people thinking.
But he’s grateful for the chance to help others navigate the treacherous waters of the disease. “We’re so accustomed to try to fix things, and we can’t always fix things with cancer,” he says. “What you want is someone to be with you.” The following is excerpted from The Elephant in the Room, by Bob Riter:
Most people find it awkward when first talking with a friend or acquaintance who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Even though nearly everyone is well-intentioned, many say things that hurt or mystify more than they comfort. Based on my own experiences and my conversations with others with cancer, here are some suggestions:
What not to say:
- Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Everyone’s natural instinct is to reassure the newly diagnosed that everything will be OK. While encouraging words are welcome, most people just diagnosed with cancer will be worried. Rather than dismissing those worries, acknowledge them. Honest conversation is likely to follow.
- Too bad about your cancer, but I could be hit by a bus tomorrow. No one in the history of civilization has ever found comfort in these words, but people say it all the time.
- Do you smoke? People with lung cancer get asked this routinely. This is blaming, not supporting. People seem to ask this question for their own peace of mind. “You smoked and got lung cancer. I don’t smoke, therefore I don’t have to worry.”
- You have to see this doctor or have this treatment or begin this cancer-fighting diet. If people want your advice, they’ll ask for it.
- Tell me how I can help. This comment often comes from the heart, but it puts the burden on the person with cancer to think of and assign tasks. It’s far better just to do things. Bring meals, take care of the kids for an evening, walk the dog, write cards of support, or call and say, “I’m heading to the supermarket. What can I pick up for you?"
What to say:
- I’m so sorry. This is a good and honest response.
- How are you doing with all of this? A simple question like this lets the person with cancer take the lead and opens the door for conversation.
- Would you like to grab a cup of coffee and talk?
- I’m keeping you in my thoughts and prayers. Positive energy always helps, in whatever form works for you and the person with cancer.
One friend describes two layers of response whenever she tells someone that she has cancer. The first layer is immediate, honest and from the gut. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” The second layer is when the person begins saying those things they think they should say. “You’ll be fine. You’ll be playing tennis in a month.” She wishes that people would stop talking after the “I’m so sorry.”
As with other difficult conversations, the specific words are less important than the tangible presence of friends and loved ones. It’s OK if the words get a bit tangled—it’s the heart that matters.
Building a Community of Caring Supporters
A decade after her husband’s death from cancer, Ann Arbor resident Nora Maloy, M.H.S.A. ’89, Dr.P.H. ’00, spends much of her time making sure other cancer patients and their families in the area find the help and hope they need. “When you get this horrible diagnosis, and you realize you don’t know as much as you thought you knew,” she says, “it is helpful to have someone you feel comfortable with help you get your arms around it.”
With advice from her friend and fellow SPH graduate Bob Riter (see story at left), and in collaboration with social worker Katie Pelz-Davis, who lost her husband to cancer in 2000, Maloy helped start what is now the Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor, an organization that provides social and emotional support, free of charge, to cancer patients, their families and friends. She’s been the board chair of this nonprofit since 2004.
The senior program manager for the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, Maloy believes people with public health training have an obligation to volunteer in their communities “because we have an understanding of community health needs, medical reimbursement, and the health care industry in general that not many people in the community have.” In addition to her work with the Cancer Support Community, Maloy facilitates grief-support groups at Arbor Hospice, serves on the board of the Michigan AIDS Coalition, and was recently elected to the board of Packard Health, a local nonprofit primary medical practice.
She offers these thoughts to anyone with a friend or loved one who has cancer: “Be there and listen. Folks react differently to the challenges of a cancer diagnosis. Provide a sense that no one has to face cancer alone.”