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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Cancer Etiquette

Rabbinical Reflecions on what this book teaches....

As Jews we have many different kinds of prayers and different ways of speaking with God through our prayers. We request, we praise and we thank. Sometimes we use the words on the page and sometimes we have nothing but the words in our hearts. These various pathways help each individual find their own route of prayer.

In the Passover seder, we read about four different children who each of specific needs and ask for help in very different ways. To each of them do we reach out and give answers and aide specific to their needs, just as we do for every member of our community who is in need of support during their fight against cancer.

Each person has different needs, different abilities and different ways of coping with what is difficult in our lives. Some people with cancer may feel overwhelmed with all that is going on and have no words for asking or any clue as to what to ask for. Others may be concerned that they will become a burden. And still others may feel that going to support groups and receiving help only reinforces the inevitable questions that cancer raises about one’s own mortality. It is important to remember that asking for help can be a challenge for some people, but is our responsibility as a caring community to always offer it.

Cancer Etiquette: What to Say, What to Do When Someone You Know or Love Has Cancer
By Rosanne Kalick


Respect the Patient’s Wishes

Who is honored? The one who honors other human beings
-from Pirke Avot 4:1

“In taking your cues from the patient, assume that what is said to you is confidential. Unless you are asked to be the family spokesperson, don’t give out information. Ask the patient what he is willing to share. The person undergoing treatment may be quite open about his condition, but don’t assume it. In some cases, less and less frequently now, the patient chooses not to reveal his condition to his children. This may not be your style; nevertheless, you have to respect that decision…” (p22)

What We Do…

“In order to strengthen the vital powers,
one should employ musical instruments
and tell patients gay stories which will make the heart swell
and narratives that will distract the mind
and cause them and their friends to laugh…”
-Maimonides, The Preservation of Youth, 12thCentury

“Just as an IV is a conduit for the drugs that enter our body to destroy cancer cells, just as the IV provides pain relief or transmits antibiotics to kill germs, so, too, the things we do serve as metaphorical IVs during the periods of diagnosis, treatment, and survival. Our words and what we do are as critical to the healing process as any intravenous drug. The positive emotional infusions that promote healing, though not visible, must be monitored just as carefully as the healing infusions on the metal poles found in every hospital room.” (p29)

The Power of Community

“Community reminds the patient that he is not alone.” (p51)

Etiquette Strategies (p.131-132)

The heart’s intention is the measure of all things.
-Maimonides, Letter to Hasdai HaLevi, 12th Century

  • Stay connected. Stay connected. Stay connected. If you’re not there, you can’t help. It’s as simple as that.
  • Ask. Don’t tell.
  • If you’re not sure what to say, don’t say it. Most of our verbal errors are not deliberate.
  • If you’re not sure what to do, don’t do it.
  • Wait. If what you say or do will help, it will help a moment or two later.
  • It’s OK to say you don’t know what to say.
  • Do your best, but do something. Keep trying.
  • If you make a mistake, apologize.
  • Take your cues from the patient.
  • Listen with eye contact and your full attention.
  • Do what you can to help the cancer patient restore some sense of control in his life.
  • There are times when silence is the best form of communication.
  • Gifts, however small, mean a lot.
  • Hugs are good.
  • Tell the people you love that you love them. Tell them again and again.
  • Remember the caregiver.
  • Imagine trading places with the patient. What would you want from family, friends, or colleagues?

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