Well-intentioned dragons the caregiver space

One oncologist, the first one we saw, said that with treatment, at best, Rebekah had 4-6 months to live. Her cancer had metastasized to her brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, and bones. Our world fell apart in a matter of minutes. But we could not accept that diagnosis. We chose to fight. Rebekah got accepted at the City of Hope in Duarte, California. After multiple rounds of brain radiation, surgeries, and weekly chemo (for life), Rebekah is currently in a near complete remission. That initial diagnosis was three years ago, and we are so grateful for every day.

If your someone you know or love has cancer, he or she will undoubtedly encounter many well-intentioned dragons. We all know them. Well-meaning, sincere people who intend good, but create stress, anger, and/or pain.


Well-intentioned dragons are like a backhanded compliment: they seem to mean well, but they leave you feeling like you’ve been stung. Over the last few years, Rebekah and I have come across many of these smiling dragons.

Kim used part of her trip to California as an opportunity to sightsee. She didn’t have a car, so she would take Rebekah’s car during the day—leaving Rebekah at home. Kim went to the beach and jetted all around town. She also hit the side of the garage when she pulled in, leaving nice big scrape marks on the front fender. She didn’t tell us this. We noticed it later after she left.

In the evenings, she gave off a vibe of restlessness that, in turn, made us feel like we had to entertain the “guest” we were “hosting.” I was frustrated. After all, she said she was coming down to help us, to relieve some of our burdens, but instead her appearance created new burdens and cost us money that we wouldn’t have spent that way.

More recently, Rebekah and I were grocery shopping when we encountered a dragon. Rebekah has no hair, so it’s very obvious that she has cancer. A man walked up to us. We will call him Burt. Seems appropriate to me: Burt the butt. Now Burt looked about fortyish; he was a tall, skinny white guy. I just remember that his T-shirt was too big on him. The conversation went like this.

Now I had heard all this before. A few weeks after Rebekah was diagnosed, I had another good friend text me all kinds of information about the Gerson “Institute.” I spent a few days reading about it and—in my opinion, not to mention most of the medical community and several documented studies—it was basically just quackery. In fact, Gerson’s practices often caused more harm than good. But was it worth it for me to debate the man there in the store? No. It would have done nothing. We just wanted to get our groceries and go home. Burt meant well, but in a different way than my knuckleheaded friend and boss, the spikes on his tail stung too. The Disappearing Dragon

Now Jill was full of positive energy and enthusiasm. Rebekah and Jill hit it off and became friends. Jill even had us over for dinner one night. Later she took Rebekah to one of her chemo appointments. Jill texted Rebekah a lot in the beginning. She was very sweet and positive. She often offered to help in any way that she could. She told Rebekah to text her anytime she needed rides to the hospital or anything else. Jill didn’t work, so she had free time.

Then Jill disappeared. Rebekah would text her, and Jill would not respond. When she finally did respond, she would say, “We have to get together soon!” Several times when we were desperate for a ride to Rebekah’s treatment, she would text Jill to see if she could take her. Either Jill did not text back, or if she did, she was always too busy. Then Jill was quiet for about a year. Recently, Rebekah got a text from Jill out of the blue. “Hey, we should hang out soon.” I don’t believe Rebekah texted back this disappearing dragon. Unsolicited Helping Dragons

Occasionally Rebekah and I encounter another kind of dragon: the unsolicited-but-ready-to-help dragon. Sometimes, for example, a woman will approach us and tell Rebekah that she, too, had cancer, but she is cancer-free now. Such women usually don’t even ask Rebekah what kind of cancer she has. They just go into a little speech about how they had cancer, but they beat it and now they are cancer-free. Then they say something like “Oh, honey, don’t worry. You are going to be just fine. You’re going to beat this. Don’t you worry. Just stay strong and positive.”

Know that we truly are thankful that these people take the time—and find the courage—to approach us and try to help. We do appreciate them. But does that kind of talk help Rebekah? No, it does more harm than good. Rebekah is left thinking, “Great. I’m glad it worked for you. I’m glad you no longer have cancer. But apart from a miracle from God, that is not going to be my story.”

Now, if Rebekah had stage 1 or stage 2 cancer, those women might not be dragons. In that case, those women (and men sometimes) would be more like angels bringing good news and encouragement. Again, this is why it is important to know what kind of cancer our friend (or anyone) has before we open our mouths with words of wisdom, offer reassurances about recovery, and advice about remedies.

Some friends have randomly texted or emailed us some study on cancer treatment. We’ve received studies on new treatments for brain cancer. (Does Rebekah have cancer in her brain? Yes. Does she have brain cancer? No.) We’ve been sent articles on “cures” for cancer, cures that range from eating certain seeds to clinical trials that are not even related to breast cancer.

The first dragon we looked at—Rick—went on and on about his friend’s dad who beat cancer eating peach pit cores. He told me how his friend told him (see how this stuff works?) that he did “research” about it, and these peach cores contain the actual cure for cancer. But the big pharmaceutical companies are suppressing this secret in order to keep making money. Remember from the last chapter? Is there just one kind of cancer? No. So, there can’t be a single silver-bullet cure for cancer.

• Don’t Assume Your Friend Thinks Like You Think. We did learn this from the two dragons without empathy, dragons who were young healthy men of faith. You can’t assume that everyone thinks about life and death the same way you do. Instead, choose empathy: try to put yourself in another person’s shoes and trying to feel what he or she is feeling.

• Be Careful About Should’n on Your Friend. Remember the conspiracy dragon who said we should go to some unconventional clinic in Mexico? Be very careful about offering medical advice: You should do this, and you shouldn’t do that. Eat this, not that . Don’t do chemotherapy; just do all-natural remedies. Unless you have an “M.D.” or a “Ph.D.” after your name, be very cautious about giving medical advice, or better yet, don’t. Rather, if anything, ask your friend if he or she has ever heard of such and such.

• Don’ Try to Fix Your Friend. Another lesson from the dragons is to avoid telling your friend how he or she should feel: “Don’t worry,” “Don’t be afraid,” and “Stay positive” simply aren’t helpful. Your friend likely knows what would be good to do but may not be able to yet. (Remember the stages of grieving?) Be there with your friend but avoid pushing them. Also, be careful and thoughtful about making bold declarations about the future: “It’s going to be fine,” “It will all work out,” and “You will beat this” may not prove true. You can share these same ideas in a more considerate way: