How Not to Cheer Up a Cancer Patient

Glenn Rockowitz is a four-time (and counting) cancer survivor. His new memoir of battling the disease is called Rodeo in Joliet. He lives in Seattle.

During my recovery from surgery a couple years ago, I received a basket of limes from my employer with a note that read “You’ll do anything for attention.” I assumed that it was a weak attempt at humor. I still assume it was. Because what other explanation is there, right? And, like you, I don’t understand the significance of the limes either.

I wrote it off as some obscure Northwest version of anti-Semitism. And I’ve found that life is easier to compartmentalize when you assume everything you do that’s not well-received is some form of anti-Semitism. It really simplifies things. I recommend it, even for non-Jews.

So to help you, the caring friend/co-worker/relative/barista of someone newly diagnosed with cancer, avoid any Lime Basket Incidents of your own, I’d like to offer up a few nuggets of advice for what works best, and what to avoid, when it comes to providing moral support:

It’s Not About the Book

Over the course of my last couple of cancers, I think I have received exactly 42,489 copies of Lance Armstrong’s book It’s Not About the Bike. It really is a good book. And yes, his journey was, and still is, heroic and inspiring. To say the least. But let’s be honest: Most of us (read: all of us) are not Lance Armstrong. Or even Lionel Armstrong, the Sea-Tac baggage handler with the bum prostate. As sweet as it is that you’re trying to inspire me during a very dark time in my life, the weeks after a diagnosis are chaotic. And terrifying. And desperate. And there’s not much time to read anything beyond the essentials. And if you still insist on going the book route, do your homework. Dead authors tend to be less inspiring.

You’re Welcome

A few years ago, I sat in a Young Adult cancer support group, where a distraught friend was trying to figure out how to finish all his Thank You notes for the people who cooked for him while he was recovering from treatment. I told him that I was pretty sure they’d understand if he chose to blow it off. Seriously. If you cooked for a loved one while they were sick or if you walked their dog or helped clean up around the house with the expectation that a Thank You note would be forthcoming, you should probably take a closer look at your definition of love. Or consider a career in puppy-murdering or nun-punching. Of course what you did was incredible and sweet and loving. Please assume that your lumpy pal is extremely grateful. And not just lazy or thoughtless.

Be Straight

This applies to homosexuals and heterosexuals alike: Tell it like it is. I know you’re afraid to ask how things are going. Or if there’s anything you can do to help, but we Cancer People generally prefer the straightforward approach. If you don’t know what to say, say just that. Something like “Sorry I’m such a total rod, but I don’t know what to say. I love you and I want to help, so just say the word and I’m there.” That’s honest. And you’re taking ownership of the most important part: You’re a total rod. I’m kidding. I think you’re the tops. And I’m sure your loved one will think so too.

Mean It

No empty gestures. If you offer to do something, follow through with it. That simple. Whether you’re offering to drive me to a doctor appointment or do my yardwork or let me sleep with your wife last weekend, just make sure you follow through. I love that.

Ling Ling

One of the most common fear responses to the dreaded News is to e-mail the person you love with as much information you can gather on his/her particular cancer. The problem is this: The Internet was invented as a pornography delivery system. And for Nigerian princes to find your grandparents and convince them to go halfsies on a timeshare in Boca Raton. And of course for every jackass with a computer to offer up an opinion on the best way to cure cancer. Look, I know you mean well, but I have yet to see anyone pull out of a pancreatic cancer tailspin by sucking on a panda’s claw for two hours a day. I’m all for alternative medicine or nontraditional ways of beating the shit out of this insidious beast, but sometimes I don’t have enough time to take a few months off to try Bosco enemas and tickle classes.

Your Friend’s Friend’s Piano Teacher’s Life Coach

Yes, I know your sister’s neighbor’s dog’s master’s hairdresser survived cancer 20 years ago. But I don’t have ovarian cancer. Yet. Of course it’s great to hear the success stories, and thank God they get more common every day, but unfortunately they don’t erase the fear I deal with alone every night. I would never discourage you from sharing those stories, just make sure you balance them out by just showing up to lend an ear.


Having a positive attitude toward beating the disease that seeks to destroy you is a good thing. Really. I’ve always had a Tom Petty stand-me-up-at-the-gates-of-hell-but-I-won’t-back-down attitude myself. But let’s be honest, my positive attitude is really for you, not me. It’s like when someone on the plane tells you your toddler was “so great” when they really mean “so great it wasn’t fucking annoying me the whole flight.”

The Jew Rule

If you’re Jewish, you can make Jew jokes. If you’re black, you can make black jokes. (And probably Jew jokes too. Really, what’re the Jews going to do?) Well, the same goes for cancer. Once you’ve joined the ranks of the dying, you can use all the tumor humor you want. Walking by my office to say “Hey, Uno! How’s your last nut hangin’?” really isn’t that funny. Especially since I’ve never had testicular cancer. Again, do your homework.

Capital Appreciation

Cancer treatment isn’t a 401k. You don’t pay into it to see a financial return on your investment. Sadly, on more than one occasion, co-workers have stopped me—always the higher-paid ones, by the way—to remind me how much they donated to my cause. One of them cornered me in an elevator a week after my last treatment and said, “You know I gave $500 for that fund-raiser they were doing for you. And it’s not even a tax write-off!” The idea of giving is to see someone you care about get better. That’s the payoff, right? OK. Maybe it’s just me.

Keep It Together

I know that watching someone you love suffer is extremely difficult. Having stood by my father’s bedside while he took his last breath, I know this pain firsthand. That said, if you can, try to save the waterworks for the really important stuff. Like the birth of a baby dolphin or the Ice Capades. The emotional weight of dealing with my own mortality is almost too much to bear. Making sure you’re OK with it can sometimes be too much. If you need to just let loose and weep for hours on end, lean on the people best equipped to deal with it: friends, family, and prostitutes.

Visiting Hours

I always thought this one was a no-brainer, but people keep surprising me, so I thought it was worth mentioning. When you visit someone you love in the hospital, consider the fact that they’re probably not super-comfortable. It may look like the back room at Studio 54 with all the plush couches, chenille blankets, and lava lamps, but it’s actually a pretty uncomfortable place. An hour after my five-hour kidney surgery, I woke to the sight of a friend sitting in a chair at the foot of my hospital bed sipping a pumpkin spice latte. She looked like one of those old International Coffee commercials where the post-orgasmic-seeming woman is holding her cup with both hands and mmmmm-ing herself silly. Hey Hitler! I haven’t eaten in 48 hours over here! Why don’t you slow it down with your “moment” while I’m trying to walk away from the light.

A 28-year-old friend of mine who was recovering from a radical hysterectomy had the pleasure of being brought dinner by a small group of friends. A full KFC spread. I have to assume it’s because nothing says “You’ll never be able to have children again” like a bucket of chicken?

We love you. And we love that you care. Just maybe a quick pause to think about where we are and why we’re there.

What Not To Say

Finding out you have cancer is devastating. Sharing that news with the people you love can also be sub-fun. The following is a list of actual quotes from my own friends and family in response to the news:

“You’ve got to slow down.”

“You should’ve taken better care of your body.”

“How did you miss the warning signs?”

“Maybe this is your wake-up call to do something different with your life.”

“You brought this on yourself.”

“Wow. What else is going on?”

Yes, the last one was meant as a joke. And it did make me laugh. A lot. Which, really, is all I want. And probably what many people who are dealing with this disease want, too: to deal with things in reality. As they come. And accept that just because you shed light on a situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean you take a situation lightly.

Cancer is not something I take lightly. I’ve lost so many people I love to it. But for me, the trick to winning the Rodeo is to keep getting back up.