How to deal with unwanted advice about cancer

Every now and then clients ask me for help on how to deal with intrusive comments about their health, or the health of a close family member. Typically the scenario is a very recent diagnosis of cancer. This is what works for people with cancer or other unpleasant conditions which invite unwanted sympathy and advice:

Expect that people will ask and that you need to have a little ‘script’ ready. Be clear in your own mind that you are not prepared to engage in long conversations and be clear about what you are prepared to divulge.

  1. Thank them warmly for their concern and agree that it’s been a shock but that you are over that stage now
  2. You are in good hands with the oncology team at (name of hospital) and have every faith in Dr/Ms/Mr (this is important as it is essentially pointless information but gives the appearance of divulging something) plus if useful, that the hospital has offered therapy/counselling and you’re thinking about whether to take them up on it
  3. You are likely to have [treatment outline only] and that all seems to going well – or will go well
  4. Thank them warmly again for their concern and good wishes and start to move away, making it clear that the conversation is over

When people persist:

If they appear to be looking for tears or worry, repeat Step 3 using very slightly different words

If they are keen to press their advice for instance that they know of a clinic in Guatemala, or their Aunty Annie took New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel powder and was cured, interrupt them politely and repeat Step 2

When they say ‘if there’s anything I can do…’ thank them and repeat Step 2

When people express doubts about whether [name of your hospital] or if the type of treatment is the best, repeat Step 2

If they draw attention to what they tell you will be the gruelling nature of the treatment with grisly stories about friends or family, interrupt and repeat Step 2

When people offer amateur therapy (‘Call me any time of day or night’) use the latter part of Step 2

Alternative scenario: people are too embarrassed to ask. In this case do the whole thing as above but seizing the initiative by actually telling them – even though they haven’t asked.

The art is to keep smiling blandly and to repeat the same ‘white noise’ information so that even the most persistent person gets it – you are not going to say any more while appearing to be chatty and taking a full part in the conversation.

This strategy will work with almost anyone.

Meantime, of course it is vital to identify those close friends and family whom you can trust with the full story and to access any professional counselling help that the hospital offers, even if it is only to give it a try.