In 2014, I married my love, Rebekah. I was 35 and she, 25. Seven months later, my dad was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. Two months after that, at the age of 26, my new wife was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.
One oncologist, the first one we saw, said that with treatment, at best, Rebekah had 4-6 months to live. Her cancer had metastasized to her brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, and bones. Our world fell apart in a matter of minutes. But we could not accept that diagnosis. We chose to fight. Rebekah got accepted at the City of Hope in Duarte, California. After multiple rounds of brain radiation, surgeries, and weekly chemo (for life), Rebekah is currently in a near complete remission. That initial diagnosis was three years ago, and we are so grateful for every day.
We’ve also learned a lot since that first day. Along the way, many people have come alongside to help: family, friends, strangers, and some out of the woodworks. Many are helpful. I call them “Cancer Angels”. But others try to help and end up doing just the opposite. I call these folk “Well-Intentioned Dragons”.
If your someone you know or love has cancer, he or she will undoubtedly encounter many well-intentioned dragons. We all know them. Well-meaning, sincere people who intend good, but create stress, anger, and/or pain. Well-intentioned dragons are like a backhanded compliment: they seem to mean well, but they leave you feeling like you’ve been stung. Over the last few years, Rebekah and I have come across many of these smiling dragons.
When, for example, Rebekah first had cancer and underwent a double mastectomy, one young woman Rebekah knew said, “Hey, at least you got a free boob job out of it!” Not helpful.
Another time Rebekah was talking to a woman about how she had lost so much weight due to the chemo and her inability to eat anything. That woman said, “Well, at least you get to lose some weight out of this.” Again, not helpful.
When our friend Andrea learned that her dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a friend told her, “Well, everyone has to die sometime.” Definitely not helpful.
I want to share with you four stories about encounters Rebekah and I had with some well-intentioned dragons. Again, these are real-life examples of what you don’t want to do.
Dragon in the Family
A few months after Rebekah and I returned home from Oregon, a relative of mine contacted us. We will call her Kim. She wanted to fly in and stay with us for a while to help us out. Still trying to figure out so many things and still feeling so lost, we said yes. We could use some help.
Kim flew in and stayed with us for a whole week. Kim is a good-hearted, well-intentioned dragon, but the stress she caused Rebekah far outweighed anything she did to help. Here’s what the week looked like.
Kim used part of her trip to California as an opportunity to sightsee. She didn’t have a car, so she would take Rebekah’s car during the day—leaving Rebekah at home. Kim went to the beach and jetted all around town. She also hit the side of the garage when she pulled in, leaving nice big scrape marks on the front fender. She didn’t tell us this. We noticed it later after she left.
In the evenings, she gave off a vibe of restlessness that, in turn, made us feel like we had to entertain the “guest” we were “hosting.” I was frustrated. After all, she said she was coming down to help us, to relieve some of our burdens, but instead her appearance created new burdens and cost us money that we wouldn’t have spent that way.
Kim was also messy, and she would stay up most of the night on her phone or watching movies and then sleep much of the day. When Kim slept instead of taking off in Rebekah’s car, Rebekah would just stay in our room, so she didn’t wake up our guest.
I remember feeling being so deeply frustrated. We love Kim, but Kim was doing the exact opposite of helping us. She brought stress when what we truly needed during that raw time was peace.
The Conspiracy Dragon
More recently, Rebekah and I were grocery shopping when we encountered a dragon. Rebekah has no hair, so it’s very obvious that she has cancer. A man walked up to us. We will call him Burt. Seems appropriate to me: Burt the butt. Now Burt looked about fortyish; he was a tall, skinny white guy. I just remember that his T-shirt was too big on him. The conversation went like this.
“Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you, and I don’t want to take up your time, but are you going through cancer?”
“Hi. Yeah, I am,” Rebekah said.
“My friend’s wife had cancer, but she is cancer-free now. She had stage 3 cancer, and she beat it by changing her diet. You should try eating [I forget what he told us, but it was some odd foods]. They are full of powerful anti-cancer properties. Those foods actually kill cancer.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks. I didn’t know that. I’ll look into that.”
“Because, you know, you can’t trust the big pharmaceutical companies. They will kill you faster than cancer can. They’re just going to pump you full of chemotherapy, which is just poison. Do you know it kills off more good cells than bad? And then they charge you an arm and a leg…” He went on for some time about this. I jumped in.
“Okay, cool. Thanks. We’ll look into it. What’s your name?”
“Thanks, Burt. We’ll check out these things.”
“Yeah, my friend’s wife cured herself all naturally just by changing her diet. Have you heard of that place in Mexico? It’s like a clinic. I forget the name of it…”
“The Gerson Institute?” I said.
“Yes! That’s the one, Gerson. They have a 100 percent cure rate. They don’t use all the manmade toxic chemical treatments that the hospitals use to kill you. Gerson uses all-natural methods to kill and cure cancer…” He went on for a while about this too. I had to cut him off.
“All right, Burt. Thanks, man. We’ll think about all this and look into it.”
“I hope I didn’t offend you and sorry for taking up so much of your time. I really didn’t plan on saying all that.” Well-intentioned dragon.
“No, no. It’s all good, man. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.”
Now I had heard all this before. A few weeks after Rebekah was diagnosed, I had another good friend text me all kinds of information about the Gerson “Institute.” I spent a few days reading about it and—in my opinion, not to mention most of the medical community and several documented studies—it was basically just quackery. In fact, Gerson’s practices often caused more harm than good. But was it worth it for me to debate the man there in the store? No. It would have done nothing. We just wanted to get our groceries and go home. Burt meant well, but in a different way than my knuckleheaded friend and boss, the spikes on his tail stung too.
The Disappearing Dragon
About six months into Rebekah’s cancer, we met a nice young girl. We will call her Jill.
Now Jill was full of positive energy and enthusiasm. Rebekah and Jill hit it off and became friends. Jill even had us over for dinner one night. Later she took Rebekah to one of her chemo appointments. Jill texted Rebekah a lot in the beginning. She was very sweet and positive. She often offered to help in any way that she could. She told Rebekah to text her anytime she needed rides to the hospital or anything else. Jill didn’t work, so she had free time.
Then Jill disappeared. Rebekah would text her, and Jill would not respond. When she finally did respond, she would say, “We have to get together soon!” Several times when we were desperate for a ride to Rebekah’s treatment, she would text Jill to see if she could take her. Either Jill did not text back, or if she did, she was always too busy. Then Jill was quiet for about a year. Recently, Rebekah got a text from Jill out of the blue. “Hey, we should hang out soon.” I don’t believe Rebekah texted back this disappearing dragon.
Unsolicited Helping Dragons
Occasionally Rebekah and I encounter another kind of dragon: the unsolicited-but-ready-to-help dragon. Sometimes, for example, a woman will approach us and tell Rebekah that she, too, had cancer, but she is cancer-free now. Such women usually don’t even ask Rebekah what kind of cancer she has. They just go into a little speech about how they had cancer, but they beat it and now they are cancer-free. Then they say something like “Oh, honey, don’t worry. You are going to be just fine. You’re going to beat this. Don’t you worry. Just stay strong and positive.”
Know that we truly are thankful that these people take the time—and find the courage—to approach us and try to help. We do appreciate them. But does that kind of talk help Rebekah? No, it does more harm than good. Rebekah is left thinking, “Great. I’m glad it worked for you. I’m glad you no longer have cancer. But apart from a miracle from God, that is not going to be my story.”
Now, if Rebekah had stage 1 or stage 2 cancer, those women might not be dragons. In that case, those women (and men sometimes) would be more like angels bringing good news and encouragement. Again, this is why it is important to know what kind of cancer our friend (or anyone) has before we open our mouths with words of wisdom, offer reassurances about recovery, and advice about remedies.
Some friends have randomly texted or emailed us some study on cancer treatment. We’ve received studies on new treatments for brain cancer. (Does Rebekah have cancer in her brain? Yes. Does she have brain cancer? No.) We’ve been sent articles on “cures” for cancer, cures that range from eating certain seeds to clinical trials that are not even related to breast cancer.
The first dragon we looked at—Rick—went on and on about his friend’s dad who beat cancer eating peach pit cores. He told me how his friend told him (see how this stuff works?) that he did “research” about it, and these peach cores contain the actual cure for cancer. But the big pharmaceutical companies are suppressing this secret in order to keep making money. Remember from the last chapter? Is there just one kind of cancer? No. So, there can’t be a single silver-bullet cure for cancer.
Most, if not all, of these people mean well; they want to help. But they are also inconsiderate: they don’t take the time to ask and listen. The pain of their sting can linger.
Lessons Learned from Dragons
Clearly, we can learn several things from these well-intentioned dragons.
- You Don’t Know the Cause. This lesson was not gleaned from the dragons you met in this chapter, but it’s important to remember that you don’t know what caused someone’s cancer—and, frankly, if you want to really help your friend, the cause is irrelevant.
- Ask Before You Talk. The first thing to do is ask your friend what kind of cancer he or she has. Then listen. Don’t ask about statistics or life expectancy or anything like that. Ask questions like:
- What did the doctors say?
- What kind of treatments do they do for that?
- Did they say what stage it’s at?
- How are you doing? or How are you handling it all?
- Don’t Assume Your Friend Thinks Like You Think. We did learn this from the two dragons without empathy, dragons who were young healthy men of faith. You can’t assume that everyone thinks about life and death the same way you do. Instead, choose empathy: try to put yourself in another person’s shoes and trying to feel what he or she is feeling.
- If You Step Up to Help, Help. From the dragon in the family and the disappearing dragon, we can learn to be people of our word. If you offer to help and if you say you’ll be there, then do it. If you come from out of town to help, be there to serve. Relieve your friend’s burdens as much as you can.
- Be Careful About Should’n on Your Friend. Remember the conspiracy dragon who said we should go to some unconventional clinic in Mexico? Be very careful about offering medical advice: You should do this, and you shouldn’t do that. Eat this, not that. Don’t do chemotherapy; just do all-natural remedies. Unless you have an “M.D.” or a “Ph.D.” after your name, be very cautious about giving medical advice, or better yet, don’t. Rather, if anything, ask your friend if he or she has ever heard of such and such.
- Don’ Try to Fix Your Friend. Another lesson from the dragons is to avoid telling your friend how he or she should feel: “Don’t worry,” “Don’t be afraid,” and “Stay positive” simply aren’t helpful. Your friend likely knows what would be good to do but may not be able to yet. (Remember the stages of grieving?) Be there with your friend but avoid pushing them. Also, be careful and thoughtful about making bold declarations about the future: “It’s going to be fine,” “It will all work out,” and “You will beat this” may not prove true. You can share these same ideas in a more considerate way:
- I know you must be afraid. I can’t imagine. I don’t have any magic words, and I don’t want to be fake. But I love you, and I’m here with you.
- I don’t know what the future holds. No one does! But I know you, and you are strong. If anyone can beat this, it’s you. I don’t always know what to say, but I love you, and I’m not going anywhere.
This article is adapted from my book, HELP! Someone I Love Has Cancer: How You Can Really Make a Difference. You can learn more at cancercaretakerbook.com.
Joel Hughes is a husband and father. He is also the author of In Your Corner (coming soon), co-producer of the movie A Brave Hope (coming soon), and director of Rebekah’s Hope. He holds degrees in Christian ministry and philosophy. Joel lives in Southern California with Rebekah and his two kids.