I work in a very small office, so it was nothing short of shocking to me when two of my coworkers recently shared with me, in the same week, that they had just been diagnosed with cancer.
Now, what exactly is the proper protocol for this situation? First, pretend not to be shocked so that you don’t make the other person feel worse than she already does. Then say something. But what?
“I’m sorry” just doesn’t seem right even though, of course, you are. That’s what you’re supposed to say when someone tells you her Aunt Mabel passed away in her sleep at the age of 92.
Gasping “Oh no!” and covering your mouth with your hand doesn’t cut it either. An overt expression of shock makes it all about you.
But it’s not about you; it’s about the sick person. Wait, now I’m using my coworker’s disease as a label. Suddenly, she’s not “my friend in accounting” or “Joan, the funny one from work I was telling you about,” but “my sick friend.”
You can ask your coworker how her doctor appointment went and when she’s having her next MRI and what kind of treatment they’re talking about. You can commiserate about what idiots the insurance company is. You can offer to drive her to her first radiation session.
You can also cry. I mean, how can you not cry, right?
No, no, you have to be strong. Only the sick person is allowed to break down. If you get all emotional, how do you think that will make her feel?
You can hug. Hugging is supposed to be healthy for all parties involved. Hugs can make both of you feel better. There is one little problem, however. Hugging doesn’t come naturally to men. Well, not to me, anyway. It kind of seems forced, like I’m doing this because I think I’m supposed to but I feel really uncomfortable so can we stop now? Also, when you’re a man, the specter of sexual harassment perpetually hangs over your head. Do the wrong thing and your job is toast.
As my nieces and nephews are quick to recognize, I am not a with-it kind of guy. (The very use of the term “with-it” shows how hopelessly old-fashioned I am.) So would someone please tell me what the manly equivalent of hugging is in the modern age? What I mean is, I don’t exactly expect to shake your hand when you’ve just told me you have cancer.
So I end up staring at my hands, staring at the floor and generally looking like a Class-A dork (or whatever term they use these days to refer to an oafish idiot with the social skills of a flea).
Inevitably, I return to my first instinct: Just be supportive. Lend a willing ear. Sympathize. Offer to help in any way you can. Ask about her family. Help to take her mind off her bodily woes by discussing her interests or joking around about office politics or funny things in the news or American Idol, like you always do.
Don’t pretend that nothing has happened, but don’t dwell on her illness either. As they say on TV, “you have cancer, cancer does not have you.” So whatever you do, don’t define someone by their illness. While it certainly looms large right now, it’s only a small part of her world. What she’s really thinking about is what to make for dinner and whether she’s supposed to bring cupcakes to her son’s school on Wednesday, or was it Thursday?
Emphasize the good stuff, the fun and the family. After all, that’s what’s going to get her through this. That and friends like you.