Nurses can play a strong, supportive role in educating the public about how to respond to people who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Much has been written about cancer as a metaphor for sport, games, competition, and even war.1,2,3 As a nurse and athlete with a recreation degree, I often find myself contemplating what the thought process is behind some of the things people say when it comes to talking about cancer. Even some healthcare organizations include these metaphors in advertising, using phrases like "game-changer" or "beat cancer" with images of beefy NFL quarterbacks to promote their services.
If you feel compelled to frame cancer as a sporting event, remember that for the patient, it's not a game or a season, and no one trains for it. It's like putting someone's 90-pound great-grandmother in the middle of an NFL scrimmage.
People have a hard time responding to cancer, even healthcare professionals (how many times has a colleague asked you if being an oncology nurse is depressing?).
On social media, the responses to someone with cancer seem to fall into 3 categories: cheerleading, thoughts and prayers, and avoidance. Taking the sport metaphor further, cancer can stir up emotions in spectators when they lack the experience, maturity, or stability to not take things personally. It's sort of like a sports fan throwing a tantrum in the bleachers over a missed field goal.
Cheerleading involves saying things like "You've got this!" or "You can beat this!", but the person with cancer doesn't know if they do or will. The person saying it knows even less.
Nurses can play a strong, supportive role in educating the public on avoiding these tropes and clichés.
For example, thoughts and prayers are nice, but how about actions? You should ask the person, "What can I do for you?" or "How can I make some physical effort toward improving your well-being right now?"
One patient I talked to said they couldn't believe it when their nurse said to them, "I'm praying for you to beat this." To the nurse, it might have seemed a nice thing to say, but the patient bristled at it.
Nurses can support patients by not making these gaffes and being an example to others observing our care. We can ask, "How can I best support you now?" or "How can I continue to support you as your needs change?"
Here are some things nurses can do to support their patients.
While we can't be there for every moment each patient with cancer is going through, we can be part of a solution to what is an otherwise difficult experience for which no one seems to be trained or prepared.