I Understand How You Feel---Really?

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • In the midst of an already jam-packed work week, two dreaded events hit us.  A student's father died just three months after his cancer diagnosis.  A friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.  My colleagues and I struggled to keep up with getting report cards finished while trying to cope with this news ourselves and help our students too.


    I saw one list the counselor had prepared for the students on how to help a grieving friend.  It included some "what not to say" phrases that we tend to use all too often.  One was "I understand how you feel."


    So often when someone in a letter to us at HealthCentral writes about her breast cancer diagnosis, I recognize some of her emotions-the shock of hearing those hateful words pronouncing the diagnosis, the worry about how the news will affect family, the fear of death.  Sometimes I think, "I know how you feel.  It happened to me too."  I have even said those words to friends and HealthCentral readers.

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    But I'm learning to bite my tongue when those words leap into my mouth.  My cancer experience may have similarities to yours, but I don't know how you feel about it.  Take my friend diagnosed this week.  Her mother died at about her own current age from inflammatory breast cancer.  She has many members in her family with breast cancer.  She has been dreading this diagnosis her entire adult life.  Mine hit me as a complete surprise.  I was expecting to have heart problems like all of my grandparents, not cancer.


    Her cancer fortunately was caught early with a mammogram, and she expects that the surgery will be the only treatment she needs.  Mine was also caught early, but it was aggressive and I needed eight months of chemo, surgery, and radiation. 


    Who can understand the fears of a mother of young children who has just learned that her cancer has advanced to Stage IV?  Maybe another mother of young children with a similar diagnosis?  OK, they would have more in common, but differences in their family support, religious views, and previous life experiences will affect how they feel.


    The fears of a single person without children or close family will be different from those of a woman surrounded by spouse, siblings, and children even if their medical details are the same.


    When a friend loses a mother to breast cancer, it's tempting to say, "I know how you feel" if our own mother died of breast cancer.  But your friend's relationship to her mother is a complicated stew of experiences and emotions that can never be exactly like yours.


    The connection we feel to our breast cancer sisters is real, and our experiences overlap.  Letting someone know how cancer has touched your life may help her.  Because I have a rare form of cancer, hearing how others had coped with my diagnosis was crucial to my emotional health.  Other cancer survivors helped me by sharing tips for dealing with chemo or radiation.  My friend and I had previously traded breast cancer stories because her mother's diagnosis was the same as my own.


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    I'm still struggling with what to say.  When I saw my friend in the copier room shortly after hearing from another colleague about her diagnosis, I embraced her and said, "I hear you might need a hug."  Then I listened.



Published On: March 06, 2011