photo by Gwen Davis
Joshua Watler at Highline Medical Center. He is a Tukwila resident.

How to make a cancer patient swoon

by Joshua Watler

Our friends and family get sick. Sometimes it's serious and we can't control that. We can, however, control how we speak to the people we love. I'm 32 years old, have been battling Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) since April of 2009 and have indeed heard it all.

The cards, gifts and visits I've received in the past five years have been at the level of generosity most people do not receive in a lifetime. I have found friends and family to have the best of intentions, but without knowing how to put together the right words, the wrong ones often come flying out.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine laying in a hospital room decorated from the 1980s, surrounded by a couple of family members and friends, hooked up to an IV machine that's about to infuse you with your family member's stem cell donation. The pleasant conversation with your friends is routinely interrupted by four or five people in white lab coats asking you the same questions they did the day before as they stand around your bed at least an arm's distance away. Never touching you. Ever. While this is happening, hundreds of people are praying for you, donating online and organizing fundraisers on your behalf. Some of the most toxic chemicals humans have created are coursing through your veins. You haven't had a normal poop in a month. Earlier in the day you filled out a worksheet called "Five Wishes" that tells family and friends where you want to be buried and whether you want warm lotion rubbed on you if you should end up in hospice. Now answer this question: How are you?

This experiment is not meant to be sarcastic or ungrateful to the wonderful folks who've asked me this question. I only wish to offer some encouragement of other ways to interact with your loved ones while they're sick. Friends and family should focus on purposeful questions and shy away from clichés from movies or pamphlets, like these repeat offenders:

SEVEN THINGS NOT TO SAY This too shall pass What doesn't kill you will only make you stronger How are you? Are you ok? Have you tried XYZ? You don't look sick Things happen for a reason

In my experience, and from other folks I've met that deal with illnesses and hospital stays, life can be very regimented and centered around medical system routines, such as doctor's appointments and IV infusions. Asking specific questions and offering your service to support this routine is most helpful. For example, "can I bring my hard drive full of movies over for you?" They will notice that you can empathize with their situation of being stuck sick in bed. Offering that specific idea for help might make it easier for them to tell you what they need or want, even if it isn’t movies.

SEVEN THINGS TO SAY What movies and/or (audio) books are you in the mood for? When can I bring them? What needs to be done at your house? When is the next time you need a ride? Something funny about your day that has nothing to do with the illness - send a text, a picture or an email. And be ok with not getting a response. When are you up for a visit? And be ok with it being twenty minutes if that's all your friend can handle at the time. Do your pets need any attention or care? Are there any errands that need to be run, prescriptions to be picked up, things put in the mail, groceries purchased, or bills paid?

The people who have surrounded me while I've been sick have been the greatest blessing to me. Nurses who've provided incredible care along with a harmless crush. Oncologists that are fun to hang out with. Close friends who will do anything for me at a moment's notice. Love and support from around the country in the form of tens of thousands of dollars raised on my fundraising site. And beautiful Jewish woman who wrote a song ( for me about this very topic. So how am I? Besides the cancer, I'm pretty damn good.

This time around Joshua is taking an integrative approach to maximize success, which unfortunately is not covered by insurance. Please consider contributing to Joshua's Kickin' Cancer Campaign, as we aim to raise $7200 by January 1st. [link:

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