July 31, 2023

Are you sick of people giving you “health” advice?


Here’s a great question I got from a reader living with lupus:

Dear Kairol,
A number of people are giving me well meaning but downright useless and unsolicited advice about my illness and how I should handle it - diet suggestions, names of new doctors, and how to manage my illness in the workplace.    It upsets me to the point that I’m sometimes in tears afterwards.   They are trying to help but not with what I need the most: grocery shopping, cooking or sheltering me from their germs.  How do I handle this?
Anon Me Again.

Dear Anon Me Again,
When we’re sick people feel helpless and they grasp at advice to try and make us feel better. Here are some ways to respond:

Heart to heart. If it’s coming from a valued friend, have a heart to heart talk.  Use good therapy talk like “I” statements to describe how you feel, and remind them how much you value their friendship.  Tell them how hard your disease is physically and emotionally, how personal your healthcare choices are, and how their advice makes you feel.  They may not know their comments have made you cry and if they love you, they’ll care.   Talk about the specific kinds of help you really need and how much their help would mean to you.

Elevator lines. If it’s coming from an acquaintance in casual conversation, prepare a practiced response that you say in a positive tone of voice, and then redirect the conversation to another topic. Such as: “Oh, wait – I know what you are going to say, but I actually have a great diet that works well for me.  Thanks for the idea, but I’m really cool in that department.”  Or, “Wait, I know you have some good advice for me, but I am on information overload about my disease, and I need to take an official break from thinking it.  But thanks anyway.” The more you do this the easier it becomes, and it’s very empowering.

The drama reduction program. I write about the DRP in my book Everything Changes and how great it was to rid my life of dramatic people.  Who are the people dishing out this advice?  Are they pushy, dramatic, tiresome, or bothersome in general?  If so, limit your contact or give them the axe.  Sound harsh?  As a young adult cancer patient, I only have so much energy to go around. I’m picky about who I give it to.

What is the most irritating unsolicited advice you have been given?  How do you handle situations like these?  Are you ever guilty of doing the same to others?  (Hard as I try, I know I am from time to time.)

For more details about my utterly liberating Drama Reduction Program, read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Wendy S. Harpham, MD Says:
    July 31st, 2009 at 7:50 PM

    I agree. I agree. I agree.

    It can be tricky sometimes to be gracious AND get the response you want and need. It does help, as you say, to have tried-and-true responses that work well for you. By that, I mean you usually get a good response and, just as important, you can live with whatever happens.

    With hope, Wendy

  2. Corey Says:
    August 1st, 2009 at 12:34 PM

    I agree completely. As the wife of a cancer patient, I think I got three times the advice as he did in how to deal with his sickness-I think people were less afraid of approaching me and giving me advice than they were my husband. It is more than annoying, it has brought me to tears like anon me again described. I really appreciate Kairol’s suggestions of how to deal with these situations, especially differentiating between close friends and colleagues/acquaintances. That’s part of the problem-coming up with the right solution for a specific situation. I can imagine that practicing is the only thing that makes it easier. Being raised to be polite and considerate, I’ve found it hard to find responses to situations like these. Do others have different ideas about what one can say to cut advice giving short?

  3. anon me again Says:
    August 2nd, 2009 at 8:23 PM

    Dear Kairol, Wendy and Corey thank you for the suggestions and empathy :-) I start practicing today…… ! And Corey I know what you mean. I do have a hard time not looking like I’m grateful even when I want to cover my ears when someone is giving me advice that’s just not useful. I kind of tried to blame it on my doctor (“my doctor wants me to stick with treatment plans that we agreed on so far at least for a while” etc) though it really doesn’t stop people when they have a strong opinion. Sigh. So then time for the axe…..

  4. anonymous Says:
    August 2nd, 2009 at 9:23 PM

    As a spouse of a young adult cancer patient, I faced this problem with my mom, who would constantly tell my spouse or me about all sorts of wacky “alternative” medicine approaches to “curing” or “avoiding” cancer. Unfortunately, my mom was so into these approaches that no amount of rational discussion or asking her not to bring these things up worked.

  5. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    August 2nd, 2009 at 11:51 PM

    In response to anonymous’ comment, I must create a fourth category of response. It is to be used with a dramatic or irrational person who could fit into the drama reduction program but they are a close family member (like your mom) or a boss. You cannot give them the axe or have a heart to heart conversation. That is when you master a calm, semi-engaged looking exterior, while inside you are doing the four year old with fingers in her ears shouting “LA-LA-LA-LA-LA I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you.” Shutting down is sometimes a great thing to do, and if someone is telling you they can cure your cancer with wackiness, it is time to buff up on strategies for not letting that in, being present in body but not mind.

  6. Garnet Says:
    August 3rd, 2009 at 2:49 PM

    Someone once told me that a friend of theirs had a CAT with “issues” (word she used) like I did with my liver. She went on to tell me that her friend’s vetrinarian told her to use a particular herbal remedy to cure her cat from her own liver problem and IT WORK! Ta da!!! I have since told this story to other people and they all agree by saying something like, “Yeah, actually, I read that and it’s true! It can help people, too, you should try it!”

    That’s all well and good and clearly she was just reaching for something -anything- to help out but at first it made my head spin that she was offering me third party advice originally given to a C A T!!!! LOL

    Another friend is convinced that her hubby died of his cancer due to all the refined sugar in the foods he ate. She pretty much gave me the silent treatment for a few months early on in my treatment because I would continue eating ice cream or pasta in front of her as she’d say these things. She would tell me how horrible it is to my system, yadda yadda. I know now that this is a common belief in the cancer-fighting community. But if I followed all of the advice that is out there (even published in *gasp!* books!), I’d just end up chasing my tail, wouldn’t I??

    I continue to ask my doctors if there is ANYTHING I should include or take out of my diet to help myself through this. Of course they said add more fruits and veggies to my diet (as usual) but also to avoid fatty and greasy foods (which I cannot even think about without gagging due to my chemo treatment anyway!). Common sense things.

    Actually, a wise person (and subsequently, other wise-ish people have) once told me that drinking wheatgrass shots three times a day is the best thing I can possibly do for my liver. Sure, I’m all for doing anything possible to rid myself of this cancer but after trying desperately to force one single tiny shot of wheatgrass down my gullet a couple months ago, I quickly decided that I had to draw the line somewhere! If my doctors start telling me to go grow, cut, make and chug my own wheatgrass cocktails, of course, I’ll seriously consider it. Otherwise, I am sooooo not interested in drinking and burping that nastiness all day every day! YUCK!

  7. anon me again Says:
    August 3rd, 2009 at 3:41 PM

    when someone is so persistent about their advice about “eat this, eat that, take this supplement, etc” - I can’t help feeling blackmailed - like “if you don’t follow my instruction and get worse, it’s your fault”. I know noone intends it to be threatening like this, though. . .. that’s the hardest part to reconcile. We already feel penalized to have serious illnesses to begin with, and to be further bombarded with mission impossible tasks, it’s just really unfair.

    This also comes back to the issue of who’s to blame for our individual illneses that we discussed a while ago. Noone. . . ..

    I wonder if it is ok to tell a little lie - to someone who won’t give up with their advice - “I tried your suggestion and I got worse, so I am stopping”. . .??? I know, passive aggressive.

  8. Janet Says:
    October 11th, 2014 at 11:50 PM

    I will be having heart surgery soon. Because I have no family or many friends, I decided to join an online group of heart surgery patients for support. Most of the people there were great, giving me “atta girls” and support for the things I was doing, etc. One person, however, was different. She scolded me for some of the things I had said in jest and offered (more like commanded!) advice that frankly was condescending and made it clear that she thought my doctors and I were too stupid to do the most basic things (like the doctors staying in contact with each other) without her telling us to do so. I tried ignoring her at first, and then made comments thanking her for her concern but telling her I had confidence in my doctors, etc. When that didn’t stop her insulting advice, I felt forced to leave the group. It had gotten to the point where I feared posting because I didn’t know which wall she was going to bounce off in response to my posts, and felt that the energy expended on managing the anxiety she caused in me was better served in preparing for my surgery.

    Here’s the interesting thing, though. Before I left the group, I reviewed her posts to other people. She’s quite long-winded, but some of the things she took me to task for, she had a totally opposite take it those same things for others.

    This leads me to believe that her unwanted, condescending advice was more than a little passive-aggressive. She’s had the heart surgery back in August, but of course, that doesn’t make her a doctor or an expert on everyone else’s conditions. Since she seemed to be singling me and perhaps a couple of other people out, I wonder if she somehow felt threatened by us. It’s obvious from her overly flowery journal entries that she wants a lot of attention and admiration. Perhaps I and the others she posts these messages with condescending and sometimes unnerving “advice” detracted too much from her. Sometimes, people offer advice just so they can put you down.

  9. Stage 4 Warrior Says:
    November 29th, 2015 at 3:03 PM

    5 weeks into a cancer diagnosis, we can sure relate to all these comments! We too wish we could plug our ears to what feels like emotional blackmail of “well meaning expert advice”
    If you tell them you’ve run their advice by the Oncology Team, they roll their eyeballs and start talking about Big Pharma and how sugar, radiation, chemo, etc. will kill you.
    Don’t they think about the consequences should someone actually *follow* their advice?
    Don’t they think we want the best for ourselves and loved ones too, and if their advice were the best for treatment, we’d do it?

    On a positive note, none of our advice-givers will be getting a cancer diagnosis since they know how it’s prevented and cured, right? But if they do, they are free to follow their own advice.

    Why should we have to muster up the energy to defend ourselves or explain why a particular treatment of chemo, radiation and surgery doesn’t feel like a choice when your fighting to keep a cancer from continuing to metastisize?
    We take a deep breath and carry on. Afterall, the consequences are not theirs.

    Stay strong, Warriors!

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