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Rev. Percy McCray: This holiday season, let cancer patients ‘drive the bus’

The Rev. Percy McCray
One way we can help reduce a cancer patient's stress and enhance their enjoyment is by putting them in the driver’s seat and allowing them to steer the conversation.

Here’s the most important piece of advice I have for friends and family engaging with a loved one with cancer over the holidays: You’re not the bus driver. Let the patient drive the bus.

While I encourage patients to attend holiday gatherings and spend time with family and friends if they’re physically able, it may also raise a range of questions and emotions, including, “What will I do when they ask me about my cancer?”

One way we can reduce their stress and enhance their enjoyment is by putting them in the driver’s seat.

Letting go of the wheel

Many people—church members, friends and family members—try to “drive the bus,” meaning they try to steer the conversation with the patient instead of allowing the patient to take the lead.

All cancer patients need to feel empowered. This is important emotionally, mentally and spiritually, because cancer may have already stripped them of power. Letting patients steer the conversation gives them a sense of control.

Open-ended questions like, “How are you feeling?” empower people to talk about what they want—not what you want. Don’t be morbid, of course, but show genuine compassion and concern.

Don’t proceed to give them an answer or answer questions for them, like: “How are you doing, sweetie? You know what? I see how you’re doing. You’re not feeling well, are you? Well, we’re here for you.”

Most cancer patients are comfortable talking about their cancer, so don’t dodge them or avoid having a conversation with them about what they’re going through. They can sense that wall, and it can leave them feeling alienated.

By and large, they’ll welcome your sensitive conversation.

Putting on the brakes

Let your loved ones with cancer lead you and dictate the tone, tempo and pace of the conversation. Don’t force a topic. If you broach something they don’t want to talk about, step away from it. Read the room, and look at their body language: Are they receptive to questions, or do they change the subject? They may ask, “How’s Joey doing in football?” Go with that. They’re letting you know they don’t want to have that discussion, so don’t.

If there’s an assertive family member who’s over the top or too direct, it can give the family peacemaker a chance to step in and say, “Hey, Bill, why don’t we give Sarah a chance to relax? She’ll let us know when she’s ready to talk about how she’s feeling and how things are going.” That comment decompresses the energy in the room.

But the fact that Uncle Bill has put the topic on the table also provides a natural opportunity for the peacemaker to circle back and say, “Sarah, is this something you want to talk about? We’re here to support you, and if you don’t want to, we don’t have to. If you’re comfortable talking about it, maybe after dinner would be okay? But you let us know.” 

Steering the discussion

Some patients are more comfortable taking the lead. They can “drive the bus” by breaking the ice.

They might say something like, “Before we get into our family traditions, I first would like to say how grateful I am to be with my family. The holidays are more meaningful to me now than ever before. You all know I have cancer. I want you to feel free to ask questions.”

When loved ones hear for the first time that a person have cancer, they may freeze. One way you can lead the discussion is by offering a general report. “My last chemo was two weeks ago, and according to the last scans, my doctor said I’m doing well.” This provides a place to begin for your loved ones who aren’t sure how to approach the topic. By taking the initiative, if you’re feeling up for it, you can take the chill out of the room and help everyone relax.

In all these examples, it’s the cancer patient controlling the conversation. Everybody else is just a passenger. Cancer patients get to take people where they want to go and can stop the bus when they’re ready to let friends and family off.

Mapping the conversation

If you’re going to host the family party this year, consider reaching out to the cancer patient prior to the event to check in and find out his or her comfort level about discussing his or her current health.

Offer to moderate a conversation with the rest of the family. People who are shy and reserved may want someone else to moderate on their behalf. The host can also learn the patient’s boundaries. The cancer patient will appreciate that you were considering the limits he or she wants to establish. 

Driving home the point

The holiday season is a time for people to return to their personal Ground Zero, which is their family, friends and loved ones, the people who care about them. It’s important for the cancer patient to have a tangible feeling of love and connectedness, and we should be cognizant of that.

Part of what’s healing and helpful to them is being part of the family dynamic, not the center of it. They want to be treated normally and positively, but most do not want to be the center of attention. Let’s engage with our loved ones who have a cancer diagnosis with that in mind.

And remember, let them drive the bus. You’ll bless them as you sit back and go along for the ride.

The Rev. Percy McCray is Director of Faith-Based Programs at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), part of City of Hope®. You can hear more of his insights on cancer care by listening to the Health, Hope & Inspiration podcast at HealthHopeAndInspiration.com.