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‘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.

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

A WORSHIPER prays at the Western Wall.

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