Mindful compassion


By Kelly Sangree


As this issue is about cancer, and especially breast cancer, I called someone with first-hand knowledge - my friend Michelle Kepner. She was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer 3 years ago, and is still battling it - though she’s stable right now. I asked her to share what she would like friends, family, and caregivers to know about helping someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.

First, DON’T:

…say “keep a positive attitude!” - If a positive attitude alone would beat cancer, there are a bunch of people who would still be walking around today. And telling a cancer patient to “be positive! You won’t beat this with a negative attitude” might sound like encouragement, but is actually telling them to keep quiet when they’re in pain, to not share their fears or plans for the future, or to comply with treatment that is causing more harm than help. Allow them to have their bad days; don’t be judgmental.

…pump your friend full of information about alternative remedies. If your friend is ready to research alternative cancer treatments, by all means, help them. But when they are first diagnosed, it sends them into a mental tailspin. Even when the alternative treatments are labeled to be used in conjunction with regular treatment, what you don’t see is ten other friends have sent different articles with contradictory advice. It’s enough to make the mind explode, so help if asked, but don’t send endless articles about how the Keto diet and Rick Simpson oil will cure everything.

…say “My aunt had cancer, she was much older than you, and she beat it, so you will too!” If it wasn’t the same diagnosis at the same stage, frankly, your aunt’s story only means that your aunt made it. (Which is awesome, so send her a card!)

…think a pink ribbon helps.  Without getting into the controversy about how various breast cancer organizations and foundations spend their money, a pink ribbon alone doesn’t materially help your friend. Dinner helps your friend. Spend your money on a restaurant gift card so they can have a family dinner together.

…ask “Didn’t you have a mammogram?” My friend Michelle DID have a mammogram at age 40. Her cancer wasn’t present then - but three years later it was so advanced that it spontaneously broke her collarbone. Sometimes you can do everything right, and still things happen.


…ask how you can help. In fact, scratch that. Tell them you’re setting up a meal train. Call them and tell them you’re taking their kids out to the park for a few hours so they can rest. Scrub their bathroom. It’s hard to ask for help when you’re used to doing things on your own, so just do the things you wish someone had done for you when you had the flu for a week.

…support their decisions. Michelle is still working, mostly because she works a job that she loves. It involves a lot of travel, with intermittent stops to her home base for treatment. Some people haven’t always been understanding about why a stage 4 cancer patient would work and travel rather than schedule life around treatment. She chooses to schedule treatment around life. Some cancers are at a stage where it really makes sense to put life on hold and make treatment a full time job, so they can heal and get back to “normal” life - support that, too.

…help them make end of life plans (if they want). I assure you, they are thinking about their death. It’s coming, just like ours, but theirs might be sooner. Ask them if there’s anything they want to prepare.

…enjoy life with them! Come and have fun with them while they’re here! When Michelle and I chatted on the phone, it took us 20 minutes to even get around to the cancer topic (and that was the reason I called!). We talked about old friends, work, funny stories, and the best gigs she had lately. She explained that even though she’s in continual pain, she’s really happy about 80% of the time. That’s a great happiness quotient!

So, help where you can, love them while you have them, and enjoy life together. Pretty good advice.