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Communication and cancer

Tags: cancer

Judi James is a leading TV expert in body language, relationships, social behaviour and communication skills. She’s written 26 books in total, with many discussing the ways in which we communicate. With experience of cancer in her family, she offered an honest and down to earth discussion on communicating about the condition with those who took part in our live chat.

Here’s what she had to say:

fionad asked:Hi Judi I'd like some advice on what to say to a friend who has cancer, sometimes it feels meaningless to always say things along the lines of 'look on the bright side'

Judi James:The one thing I have learned is that there is probably no 'right' thing to say. We're desperate to cheer them up but phrases like 'look on the bright side' can sound as though we're trying to ignore their feelings and possible fears. I know a lot of people with cancer say they get heaps of clichés like 'You'll be fine!' or the infamous 'How are you?' with the meaningful eye contact...

I think it's fine to be honest and tell your friend that you don't know what to say. I find being a good listener can be much more useful. We're not always great at that but it often helps more to listen and ask questions than to try to jolly her along. No need to sound doomy but let her tell you how she feels first.

Tatiana asked:Hi, I have a question about the CPC website. Some of the materials posted there date back to late 90s and blame industries in not revealing their ingredients which may be harmful and potentially causing cancer. Has the situation improved since late 90s? I can see on shampoos and food products ingredients, does that mean that companies are now legally obliged to provide this info? Thank you.

Judi James:Hi Tatiana. I'm sorry to duck out so early in this web chat but that's not my area of expertise I'm afraid. I wish I could help; my speciality is around contact and communication on a very personal level. I think you'd need someone with a science/medical background or even legal. I do wish you luck with your search though.

Judi James:Just to add to Fiona’s point though, I think that our body language can often be more meaningful than our words when a friend has cancer. Often it’s easier to get our feelings across via a hug or squeeze of the arm than it is to express ourselves verbally. It's important to not be too frightened of saying the wrong thing though as the worst thing is probably to say nothing. A lot of people find communication so difficult that they can avoid it, leaving the friend feeling isolated.

AXA PPP healthcare:Thanks Judi. Do you have any recommendations that would help cancer patients share their diagnosis with friends and family?

Judi James:One of the greatest problems in my experience is dealing with the diagnosis and treatment in terms of communication in the first place! Although doctors are often great communicators and although most oncologists I have met are magnificent in terms of the time they will spend explaining the diagnosis and treatment options to a patient there's something that closes down in the brain in terms of accepting and remembering what was said. This can cause all sorts of problems when you try to pass those messages onto your family. I have even gone mob-handed to listen to the doctor so at least one of us would be able to remember but when we came out we'd all heard different things! It helps to write things down or take a Dictaphone. Then decide how much you want to tell to who.

Scot01 asked:I have a friend who has lost her hair due to her cancer treatment and I never know what to say to her, I feel bad when I see her and tell her she looks great when the physical effects of her illness are so evident.

Judi James:Hi, it can be so difficult when someone's looks change, either they might look ill during stages of treatment, or they might get hair loss. I think it's important to not over-compensate because none of us are very good at that kind of thing and usually end up over-acting. I've heard it can help if you become more practical rather than offering opinions. You could ask about the hair loss and if they've decided about wigs or not. I know women who have been enrolled as the best friend to go shopping with for wigs or selections of scarves or who will offer advice about going au naturel. If you've enjoyed shopping together before the cancer this can help get back in touch with normal experiences again.

lyoung asked:My friend's father has just a lung cancer scare - he was a heavy smoker however stopped during the scare. He is now smoking heavily again. I know she is worried about this and has lost relatives to cancer - how can I talk to her about this?

Judi James:You're very kind and very right to be caring with your friend over her father as she must feel frightened and distraught, firstly with her dad's scare and then with his continuing to smoke. She will need your support as a friend and - again - your best role is probably to listen when she tells you what's happening and how she feels. Her dad has clearly made his own decisions although I'm sure she will want to try to make him see sense. Your role is less around that and more as 'mop up' to how she feels. Take her for lunch or a coffee on a regular basis and be a non-judgmental sounding board for her.

becs asked:We've got a work colleague coming back next week who's been diagnosed with breast cancer, how do I speak to them - do I say hello and mention it straight away?

Judi James:I think it’s important to let them guide you in terms of how much she wants to discuss and when. Some people will talk openly about what's happened at work but others prefer to keep much of it private. Going back to work can feel like going back to a kind of normality where cancer doesn't exist for some people although ignoring it might seem unfeeling to others. I'd suggest a quiet but warm greeting plus a mention that there's no right thing to say but that you will leave it to her in terms of chatting about it or not. And you could take it from there.

Dick Wagner asked:I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with cancer and it is clearly beginning to affect them, but we have yet to really talk about things. Raising the topic of someone’s cancer can obviously be a sensitive subject and I wouldn't want to upset them by bringing things up if they aren't ready to talk - any advice you can offer on how to raise the subject in an appropriate manner, or should I really just wait for them to talk about it?

Judi James:Hi Dick. You sound like a great and very empathetic friend. So much of our friendship communication is spontaneous that we can feel really lost when we have to be more strategic and tread carefully. It can help to keep in mind the kind of template of communication you already had with your friend and use that to help guide you, as they are still the same person. One of the hardest things for some people with cancer is the way it can make people around them start to act differently, meaning there's a feeling of being alienated from real life. Obviously you shouldn't just ignore the cancer and make it 'business as usual' but if you can try to talk in your normal format and really, I'd suggest you tell them how you've been puzzling over how to bring it up. I'm sure they're wondering what you're thinking and letting them know you've been working out what to say might help.

Stewart Y asked:Hi, a couple of questions. 1. A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago, and was told about a "median life expectancy" for that particular form of the disease. Can you clarify what this means, as I understand it, it's seems to be really just an arbitrary line? 2. I too find it difficult to communicate with my friend regarding the disease. So any tips would be welcome. I don't want to seem like I don't care - but I also don't want to bring it up as it's obviously a heavy subject :(

Judi James:Hi Stewart! Look, one thing I discovered is that some doctors talk about cancer in terms that kind of give you information but without really telling you anything. I know a lot of it has to be non-specific but I also realise some of the terms are used to avoid words that might be distressing. There were times when I felt as though I was being spoken to in riddles and that I couldn't work out what questions I should be asking! I think the idea is that there are some people who want to know all the facts and prognosis, good or not, and others who don't. The only person who will know is your friend’s doctor but I assume you are only in contact with your friend, so I'm afraid you might stay puzzled about this one. But do speak to your friend about how they're doing and how they're feeling. There's no need for you to feel you should turn up armed with comments and clichés. As friends we can offer practical help, like lifts or companionship of hospital visits.

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