Supporting cancer victims affects us all. At least once in your life someone will say to you, I have cancer, and when those three words are spoken, you may struggle to respond in a compassionate and helpful way. The compassion part may be easy in supporting cancer victims. In the misery of another, we see ourselves; if not in the present, than in our past or future. But does having compassion automatically result in skillful behaviors when supporting cancer victims? I’ve wrestled with this question as someone living with cancer survivor for twelve years and for twenty-five years as a counselor of people coping with chronic illnesses. My conclusion is compassion isn’t enough.
The What and How of Compassion
His Holiness, The Dali Lama, wrote “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Thich Nhat Hanh, said, “Compassion means, literally, ‘to suffer with.’” For me, compassion is a what of Buddhist tradition. It says this is what we should be doing in supporting cancer victims, but not necessarily how to do it other than in general terms (e.g., acceptance, nonjudgmental, etc.)
The problem for many—including myself—is how to practice compassion in a way that is helpful to others. For example, is it compassionate to give a strung-out street person money knowing he will use it to buy drugs? Is it compassionate to tell your frightened mother who has terminal cancer she will survive? Some authors maintain answers to questions such as these come through meditation when we put ourselves in the place of others who are in great torment.
For me, meditation provides more whats than hows about supporting cancer victims, but rarely do hypotheticals translate into accurate understanding.
When Compassion Requires Facts: Supporting Cancer Victims
Driving from New York City to San Francisco is analogous to wanting to be compassionate in supporting cancer victims. The intents are clear; to arrive in San Francisco and to help a friend cope. You may be uncertain of the routes to take for the drive, so you go to a local travel office and ask, “How to I get to San Francisco?” A clerk points west and says “That way.” The directions are correct, but not specific enough to be helpful. I believe a similar problem exists in wanting supporting cancer victims and knowing how to implement it.
The difference between intent and practice was made clear to me by a hospice patient who described the difficulty her brother had when she informed him of her cervical cancer prognosis.They were close throughout their lives, and she regarded him as compassionate. He stumbled when faced with transforming compassion into practical behaviors. He understood his sister’s condition would deteriorate. She would soon need help in daily activities, such as food preparation and personal hygiene. His dilemma was in not knowing how to approach these issues with her. Should he assume she needed help, or should he wait until asked?
The gap between compassionate intent and support was not limited to her physical needs. He struggled with knowing when the time was right to discuss how he felt about her. What should he say that would ease her journey? Should he raise the possibility she might not survive or pretend everything would be fine? He assumed compassion would be easy to actualize. But it wasn’t. It involved a series of choices about how to be compassionate.
You may believe supporting cancer victims only requires responses based on concepts such as “active listening,” “acceptance,” “openness,” “honesty,” and “being present.” According to people living with and dying from cancer, what they crave is specificity, not just generalities. There is immense gratitude for the compassion shown to us, but we need more.
Our Invitation and Your Responsibility
Think of “compassion” as what separates you from other people we encounter. You’re the type of person we want in our lives—and for some, our deaths. We are inviting you into a world that’s constantly changing, chaotic, and quite often frightening. We’ll ask you to transform intentions into actions if you accept our invitation. Below are six of the many areas in which your loved one or friend may ask for help. How would you respond without referring to the above general concepts? In other words, what would you do?
1) What will you do when I share my diagnosis with you?
2) How will you react to my fluctuating emotions?
3) What can you do to compensate for my accumulated losses?
4) What will you communicate to me and how will you do it?
5) When I experience emotional or physical pain, how will you help me?
6) What will you do if my prognosis is terminal?
Coping with cancer is a complex and messy journey for those of us experiencing it and friends and loved ones accompanying us. Supporting cancer victims requires both compassionate intent and practical knowledge merged as skillful, useful actions. Real compassion requires doing, not just feeling.