‘What’s your Hebrew name?”
That was all the text message said. No empathetic opening like “I heard about what’s going on” or acknowledgment of “that must be really tough.”
I knew exactly what the sender was getting at – he wanted to pray for me and needed the mystical equivalent of my teudat zehut (Israeli ID number).
This brief WhatsApp exchange was just the first in a series of awkward moments I’ve encountered since telling people I have cancer. As much as the diagnosis was a shock to me, it’s been an even bigger one to friends and family who were not privy to the repeated pokes and scans and blood tests that preceded the final verdict.
One thing I’ve learned in the relatively short time I’ve been living with follicular lymphoma is that people don’t know how to respond when they first hear about someone who’s sick.
I understand that much better now. You really have to have been through a life-threatening condition – either personally or by caring for a loved one – to truly “get it.” And even then, every individual responds differently to his or her illness, so the compassionate thing to say to one person might come off as uncaring to another.
I DECIDED to write down a list of the most appropriate words I’d want to hear. Then I found that Letty Cottin Pogrebin had already done the same thing.
Pogrebin was a founding editor of Ms. magazine. Her most recent book of nonfiction, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, was written after the author was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago.
Pogrebin’s book is filled with valuable insight. Asking “How are you?” for example, is a loaded question for someone who’s ill, she writes. In normal discussion, it’s meant as a breezy placeholder for a longer conversation to be held later, where the questioner is expecting just a quick “Fine, how are you?” in response.
But for a sick person, that simple salutation triggers a fairly complex decision-making process, where one has to “decide on the spot, questioner by questioner, friend by friend, situation by situation, how candidly to respond,” Pogrebin explains.
Here are a few tips I’ve picked up during my own bout with cancer.
Wishing a sick person refua shlema – a “complete recovery” in Hebrew – is a standard formulation in Jewish circles that does the job succinctly without descending into platitudes or clichés. It’s much better than faux encouraging lines like “Everything happens for a reason,” “You’re so brave” or “We’re all going to die someday. You could be hit by a car tomorrow.”
Similarly, while it’s true that my cancer may very well “change me for the better,” that sentiment is better off coming from me, not from someone else, however well intentioned.
“Let me know if you need anything” sounds comforting, but it actually puts the onus on the sick person to proactively reach out for assistance. In her book, Pogrebin suggests that a more helpful response might be “How can I help?” or “What can I do?”
Another from Pogrebin: Do your best to suss out where the sick person is at, before engaging in conversation. A chipper “Tell me all about it!” might not be received as supportive by someone in pain. Sometimes it’s appropriate to change the subject; other times, the best thing to say is just “cancer sucks” and leave it at that.
When it comes to giving advice, it’s fine if the sick person initiates. “Hey, you’re a nutritionist. What do you know about sugar and tumors?” But otherwise, that YouTube video you saw about how your favorite holistic therapy can cure cancer may come across as pushing an agenda I might not be ready to hear.
“But you’re so healthy. You work out, you’re always hiking, you don’t smoke. And your wife’s a vegan. How could this have happened?” But it did. And science doesn’t know what causes lymphoma. It could be genetics. It could be overuse of antibiotics. It could be the environment. Or all of the above.
UNDERLYING THESE last two points is what I think is behind many of the comments people make: fear. It’s terrifying when someone gets cancer, because it forces you to confront not only your friend’s mortality but your own.
Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in his best-selling book The Emperor of All Maladies that, in the United States, one out of every two men and one out of every three women will develop cancer during their lifetime.
So, if you can create “categories of exclusion” – “Yes, he exercised, but he also ate meat” or “I had that same ultrasound and it was clear” – then you can feel “safe” (at least for the time being) that you won’t get it, too.
That, I propose, is what’s behind the “Can I pray for you?” question. It’s not so much that you’re helping me, but, rather, that you’re calming your own dread by doing something – anything – in the face of the alarming possibility that the universe is, in fact, random.
I understand that concern – I feel it, too. But, as regular readers know, I’m not a big believer in the efficacy of prayer. So I’ve begun to suggest an alternative action when someone asks for my Hebrew name.
“Instead of praying, the next time you’re walking down the street, smile at someone you don’t know or just say hello to a stranger,” I explain. “And when you do, please think of me.”
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com
Every individual responds differently to his or her illness, so the compassionate thing to say to one person might come off as uncaring to another.
A WORSHIPER prays at the Western Wall.