What can I say when my parent with cancer falls into self-pity?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My father is being treated for lung cancer and is very uncomfortable, which leads him to feel sorry for himself. It can be hard to know what to say to cheer him up. Any suggestions?

Expert Answer

Gloria Nelson is a senior oncology social worker at the Montefiore-Einstein Medical Center in Bronx, New York.

Most people, faced with a cancer diagnosis, are going to go through a period of thinking, "Why me?" The trick is to help your dad move past that point and not get stuck there. What I've found works best to combat self-pity is to refocus on what you can be thankful for. In the cancer support group I run, we'll go around the room and list things we're grateful for. But not in a corny, "look on the bright side" way -- we keep it real. For example, one patient, who's probably not going to get better, recently said, "I'm thankful for the oncology staff because they make me feel well cared for." She can't be thankful that she's feeling better, because she's not. But she can be thankful that she's well cared for and comfortable.

If your father's having trouble thinking of things, focus on what's specific and concrete. We can feel more grateful when we think about the small things that make life better: "the taste of a fresh cup of coffee in the morning" or "the new electric blanket that's keeping me so warm at night." Help him turn negatives into positives; if he's been in a lot of pain and that's making him feel sorry for himself, maybe he feels grateful for the new pain medication that's working a lot better than the old one.

There's nothing wrong with black humor, either, if it helps. Recently in one of my groups, a man was complaining about his wife's Alzheimer's, saying he wished she weren't calling his name every day. Then he added, "But then I tell myself, at least she remembers my name."