Better Phrase Than Staying Strong

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

If your loved one has cancer, you may sense an obligation to be strong. The phrase “Be strong” is branded into our brains, but I wish we had a better phrase to capture the role of the people closest to those with cancer.

Being strong makes me think of Clint Eastwood characters. Never flinching, always moving forward, threatening to beat cancer to a pulp. I, for one, would not be comforted by having Dirty Harry in my chemotherapy room.

Strong sometimes gets confused with stoic. A man in treatment once told me, “My wife tries to be strong and not cry in front of me, but we both know it’s an act. We’ve been married for 45 years and she always cries. It’s just who she is. I wish she would cry with me now.”

When everyone else goes home, you need to have someone stay behind and share your reality. With cancer, the reality is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and often uncertain.

I think a better phrase than “being strong” is “being connected.” That’s what a person with cancer most needs – the sense that a loved one will be there and be connected for whatever comes.

One critical role for the loved one is to focus on the patient’s quality of life – is treatment affecting the patient’s ability to sleep? To eat? Are they experiencing pain? Sometimes doctors – and even patients – need to be reminded about the seemingly small things that can make a huge difference in how the person feels. I recently heard one person describe his spouse as his “quality of life advocate.”

He went on to say that everyone needs a quality of life advocate during cancer treatment. I couldn’t agree more.

Reprinted with permission from From the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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