OT: What do you say when you can't say 'get well soon'?

I know a lovely woman who is very unwell w cancer. I do not know her well (she is more of a friend of a friend) but I like her very much. She has had to drop out of our book group for now because she's feeling poorly. I'd like to email her to say I will miss her and she should feel free to drop back in just for social reasons if she likes, whether or not she reads the book (for real, who really cares if you read the book? not I). How do I wrap it all up without either being overly glib (can't say get well soon) or overly grave ('thinking of you' and 'sending love' seem sort of, Idk, sympathy-card-sentiment, eek). I may be overthinking it.

What do you say to someone when you can't say 'get well soon'? Even if this is chemo SEs or something temporary, my understanding is that this lady has quite advanced cancer and I don't want to say something inappropriate.

I know this is not the most obvious place to ask this question but I'm interested in your opinions. After all, we often find others telling us to cheer up, stay positive and all kinds of things that can be a bit fume-inducing when you have a chronic illness.

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19 Replies

  • Hi, having been that person with cancer I know exactly what you mean. Often patients find that "friends" fade away probably out of embarrassment at not knowing what to say. I can't find the link, but someone even started producing a set of greetings cards for just such a situation. In this case I would suggest maybe saying something like " we miss you in our group and would love to have you back whenever you feel able to. We value your company more than any input on the books, so please don't feel you can't come just because you haven't read them. We hope to see you soon". Cancer patients can find their lives taken over by the disease and generally just want an opportunity to be seen as the person they still are, rather than a disease that happens to have a person attached. Just treat them as a person, if she wants to talk about the cancer she will, but I would suggest letting her bring it up first. Oh and btw there is an expression that I always hated seeing, you know the one, a carefully arranged neutral face with head held slightly sideways and concern in the eyes, usually accompanied by a careful "how are you?". That one is an instant barrier to anything actually meaningful!

    Good luck

    Gillian xx

  • Thank you Gillian, I appreciate your input. I know the expression you're talking about!

    My mum had BC a couple of years ago and I generally feel ok in this sphere (I cringe to think of how I handled it in the past). In this case, I am a bit more gingerly because I don't know this person well and there may be a bit of girlcrush going on as she is the person in the group whose values I most identify with. And I guess I fear this is her way of saying she won't be back at all, so saying 'Oh come back soon!' is maybe missing the point if you see what I mean. But perhaps I am just artificially stacking this w loads of meaning that just isn't there and as you say the best way to deal w it is to be normal and not to hand-wring too much.

    Btw when my mum was being treated my favourite comment was (from someone who was treated w radiation but no chemo to my mum, who had both) 'Radiation is worse than chemo!' Errr, ok. This 'friend' (who is a bit of an amateur cancer expert/professional cancer obsessive) also harangued my mum to sign up for a Meals on Wheels kind of programme which she herself never used and in fact turned out to be in a completely different part of the country. And she would ring up daily to see if we'd taken her suggestions and chivvy us to get on it. She then had a massive wig-out about something unrelated (but I'm sure there were echoes of how we related to each other on the subject of cancer) and more or less stopped communicating w me while my mum was actually going for daily radiation. Good times.

    I do hope you are on the road to recovery and I am grateful for your comment. xx

  • Well done for reaching out to her, it really does help people to keep a hold of life outside cancer and I am sure she really appreciates it. Just normal stuff.

    I can totally believe the behaviour from the 'friend' - unfortunately some people try to turn it into a competition. I think sometimes it becomes easier to turn their attention on someone else - whether welcome or not - to avoid having to fully acknowledge and think about their own situation.

    Thank you for the thoughts, almost 2 years after surgery (then chemo & radio) and actually feeling better than ever thanks to the experts here. I hope your mother is doing well too. xx

  • Good for you, long may it continue! My mum is doing well thanks, she was treatable and though she had a very long road (a second surgery to get clean margins, lots of radio SEs, chemo which caused life-threatening blood clots so was cut short, months of treatment for the blood clots etc etc) she is now very fit and well. Her treatment also started about two years ago. :-)

    Yes, don't know what to think about that friend. I've known her for something like 35yrs. She was successfully treated *years ago* but has immersed herself in a kind of cancer culture. She is in all sorts of cancer support groups, on the board of this and board of that. She kept pestering my mum to do all this therapeutic stuff (cancer massage, cancer yoga, cancer fill in the blank) this is after my mum's surgery and she just wanted to get on with her life, like, er, thanks but I haven't got cancer now so I'll give it a miss.

    God it is all such a head****. If you come out the other side relatively unscathed you know you really have your head screwed on and should feel good about it. :-)

  • Sounds as if you would only do the right thing anyway. Type something - look at it again and maybe again ..... I am sure it will be appreciated.

    I recently met someone in the UK with terminal cancer. When I returned to Crete we exchanged e-mails - about her planned trip here - the sun - her previous trips and so on. Sadly she lost her battle .....

    I always think it best to do something rather than nothing .... or say something rather than nothing. Also try to imagine what you would like at such a time ..... You have reminded me that I need to do a similar thing .... x

  • Thank you. Yes, it's not like she's waiting to catch me out saying the wrong thing, so as you say best not to lose sight of doing something even if we don't always know how to do it the very best way.

    I have just emailed. Good luck w your 'similar thing'. I'm sorry to hear about your friend. x

  • I'm glad you've e mailed pb. A terminal illness is like a death; people shy away from saying anything and leave the person affected (bereaved) feeling even more alienated. I often work with people coming to the end of their time here and saying pretty much anything...just interacting, engaging with them really, is the right thing to do...and because it's uncommon, appreciated all the more.

  • Exactly the same thing has happened in my book group. She found she just couldn't concentrate on reading. She hosted 'her' last book a few months ago - the rest of us just hosted in her place it was the first time I'd seen her last year but her treatment was in a place that she felt able to do it. This year however she had left.

    I just emailed and said I really miss her at our meetings, she always seems to like likes to hear from me and replies straight away. We just talk generally about holidays - we go to similar places and she still gets away when she can, we talked about the little things they didn't tell her to expect from cancer - some very similar to the sort of things that some thyroid patients have to put up with - hair loss, her finger nails crumbling, those little things that you just don't expect, we talk about books and authors we like - we are both heavily into one author and have waited for years for the final book in a series to come out. We had a late Christmas lunch recently and the final book was due out next day so we were excited about that. When she has had bad news I usually just something like 'That's a bit of a bummer' or 'Oh bu@@er, that's a pain' and she says 'Exactky'..

    I'd just drop her a friendly email every now and again with general chat or if you've read something you think she might like when she feels like reading again mention that. I don't think it probably matters what you say - I mean you don't want to say anything awful and tactless but I think she will appreciate you getting in touch and that you think of her as a person, rather than a person with cancer - not sure if I've put that well but you probably know what I mean.

  • Sorry to hear that about your friend. My friend said the same, that she couldn't focus and her mind is too fuzzy. I do know what you mean about getting in touch just in an everyday, chatty way. Because I like her but am not close to her I guess I feel a bit tentative (we have only ever socialised in a group setting).

  • No, I'm not that close to her. I worked with her many years ago and when I left we didn't see each other for years then through someone else we both worked with we ended up in the same book group so she's not a close friend in that the only place we met was once a month at book group but she's a very quiet nice person and I do miss her at meetings.

  • To my friend who is in hospital because of the the pain of radiation I just say "Take care" or "hugs". We drop in to see him every week (or did before the hospital stay) and keep in touch by email.

  • Oh ffs, yes 'take care' - that is so simple and obvious. And normal! Of course as soon as I excluded 'get well' my mind more or less went blank. Thank you.

    Radiation is rotten isn't it, I'm sorry your friend is unwell. My mum got through it really well but a day or two after it was all over she was covered w blisters.

    Your friend must be glad of your steady attention and friendship.

  • It basically killed my mum. It was horrific.

  • Oh no, I'm so sorry, how awful. I have heard some heartrending stories.

  • How about "just to let you know I am thinking about you and if you need anything please don't hesitate to ask." Or, "just to let you know you are in my thoughts and prayers and if you need anything please do not hesitate to ask." Maybe send her a gift of a book of meditation or CD of music to meditate by.

  • The only thing I'd say about "please don't hesitate to ask" is that the recipient of that will never ask. I know it's slightly different - but similar - that when my husband was dying from cancer last year lots of people said that to me. In reality, picking up the phone to ask for someone to be there for you, or to do something for you, is nigh on impossible. You just don't do it because you don't want to bring anyone down, no matter how awful you're feeling. You just live in hope that they'll pick up the phone or message you or pop around.

    "Take care" and "hugs" would be my go-to response. Not sure about the meditation either if I'm honest. If you know the person would appreciate that, maybe. :)

  • Jazzw I'm so sorry about your husband.

    I have read that people often prefer to be offered a specific favour (a meal, dog walking, a lift somewhere) at a specific time: 'How about I come round and take the dog for a walk this Tuesday? Does x o'clock work for you?' Does that sound like something you would have felt good about? I wonder because everyone is different and we all want so badly to get it right, if you're an acquaintance no matter how much you want to help it may feel oddly intrusive to make these kinds of firm offers. And it isn't really in our culture. But I'd love to know how to get this stuff right.

    My gran handled so many deaths in her family (she was the youngest by quite a few years) she knew everything there was to know about it, but we have sort of lost these skills.

    One of our mutual friends is closer to this lady than I am. I will ask if there is something in particular she might enjoy as a little gift.

    I live in dread of someone dropping in on me but everyone is different. :-) If you feel isolated I guess that can change.

  • Yes, I think so. (And agreed - not so keen on the dropping round thing either but as no one ever does it's a moot point! :) ).

  • Ok, not sure anyone will see this but I thought I'd add an update to yesterday's maudlin post. I emailed this lady from my book group to say 'we will miss you, do drop back in if you like' and then emailed a mutual friend who is closer to her than I am. Our mutual friend got back to me to say the lady in question is feeling well at the moment and has recently taken on a puppy (er, so that's why she is tired I guess).

    So the moral of the story is: don't put people in the sickroom (or on their deathbed, mea culpa) just because you know one thing about them (cancer) because maybe they got a puppy and are understandably tired. (Just thinking about having a puppy makes me tired).

    So after all the discussion from yesterday about treating someone like they're a normal person I am mortified that I jumped to conclusions. To be fair she hasn't been to book group in ages and everyone I know has been laid low w flu, so maybe that's just where my mind is going at the moment, I'm just thinking everyone I know is dropping like flies.

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