When to Hold a Hand, When to Kick an Ass

Rodney Warner, JD
Rodney Warner, JD

It’s a fine line.

As an attorney, I worked with cancer survivors. I tried to make their lives easier, so they could focus on recovery and treatment. It could mean talking about planning issues, advanced medical directives, employment problems or family issues. I had a client in her 30’s with stage three breast cancer. She was the single mother of a young daughter. The father was less than reliable and never let the truth interfere with his relationships with women (at one point he lied to his fiancée (not my client) and denied he had a daughter).

This client had her act together. After getting her diagnosis, she had a ‘to do’ list of things that had to be addressed. One of those things was custody of her daughter. We went to family court and she got it.

As a cancer survivor, I’ve been to many a support and networking meeting. At one, a woman attended who had a hard time admitting that she had cancer (according to an oncologist). She told us she was too busy to have cancer. At the start of the meeting, she told us her diagnosis. Later in the meeting, I asked her again what she had, because I’d never heard of it before. She just looked at me and didn’t respond. I think she might’ve thought that if she admitted she had cancer, it might make it more real, give it more power over her.

These two ladies are on both ends of the spectrum, as far as their ability to emotionally handle their situation. One fully grasped the jam she was in, put together a plan so her needs (and those of her family) would be addressed, put the plan into action and plugged ahead with her treatment. The other couldn’t move ahead to have her needs met (including proper treatment) because she refused to accept the reality of her situation.

In my roles as a professional, and as a fellow cancer survivor, I’ve tried to help others cope with cancer survivorship. I’d guess in almost all situations, a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on can be a huge help. With my client, she knew what she was up against, and I was more than happy to give her whatever support I could.

But in case number two, how do you give emotional support to someone who can’t recognize or admit she has a problem? Some people are just in such spiral of self-absorbed woe that I think a cold blast of reality is more likely to get them on the right track, as opposed to a warm hug of touchy feeliness.

I’m no counseling professional, but if along the way you encounter a survivor just submerged in grief, maybe the better thing to do is to encourage the person to understand the reality they face, but to let them know they can take actions to make the best of the situation. Even someone who’s terminally ill can control their treatment, and hopefully, control their pain. Encourage them to take actions and address their problems.

In the end, it’s up to the individual to decide how to cope with what they face. But giving the warm fuzzies to someone in a cocoon of denial or a self-induced haze of inability to make decisions, may not be the most helpful thing you could do.