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Cards That Offer Better Words for a Serious Illness

Their cancer-survivor maker knows the pain of kind but hurtful sentiments


If you have ever had cancer or another serious illness, you can probably make a long list of unhelpful things that friends, family and well-meaning acquaintances have said to you.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“I read about this miraculous new treatment on the Internet!”

“Oh, I knew someone who had that same thing and they died.”

Emily McDowell, a cancer survivor, has heard them all. In response, the Los Angeles graphic designer came up with a set of eight “Empathy Cards” to be used when traditional “get well” cards just don’t work. She launched them this week. Another set is due out in December, she told NPR’s Ina Jaffe in an interview.

A Terrifying Diagnosis

McDowell learned 15 years ago, at age 24, that she had Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

“The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called ‘sir’ by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo,” she said on her company’s website. “It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.”

(MORE: Be Kind to Yourself When Dealing With Cancer)

Among the potentially offensive comments: referring to cancer as “a journey.”

“With time and distance, some people do come to that conclusion on their own that this … feels like a journey,” McDowell told NPR. “But a lot of people really feel like ‘If this is a journey, I’d like my ticket refunded,’ or ‘This is a journey to hell and back.’ ”

Coming Up Empty

To be fair, it is hard to know what to say. When we see friends and loved ones suffering, we want to help. But most of the greeting cards in stores either make a joke of illness or suggest that someone “get well” when the recipient is terminally ill.

McDowell said she knew there was a need for what she was doing. She calls empathy cards “the most important things I’ve designed so far.”

(MORE: Talking With Loved Ones About How They Want to Die)

What her website calls the “insane!” media coverage on the new cards has brought in a blizzard of new orders. Visitors to the site are greeted with a note advising buyers to allow three to five business days before orders can be shipped.

Many Can Relate

The cards’ sentiments have clearly hit a nerve.

In more than 200 comments posted below the story on NPR’s website, readers gave example after example of “helpful” remarks they found offensive in the face of a serious or terminal illness.

“I was strongly advised to pray for forgiveness so that my punishment could be lifted,” one wrote.

Several said sentiments like “I’ll pray for you” made them angry; others said they appreciated offers of prayer and took those to heart.

“I’ve heard, ‘You’re so brave’ a million times,” another wrote. “As if I have any choice.”

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