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E-mail Etiquette

What to Say When Cancer’s the Subject

by Debra Jarvis

Wellness image

I was working as an oncology chaplain when I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. I ended up having a mastectomy and then chemotherapy. I spent six weeks at home after surgery, and I found that, next to stool softeners, e-mail was my best friend. Unlike a phone call, I could respond to e-mail when I had the energy and I could read the best messages over and over again. E-mail is very popular these days, so I would like to share a few insights about words, helpful and unhelpful, in e-mail.

First of all, most of the messages I received were wonderful and met the following criteria: (1) acknowledgment that having cancer pretty much stinks, (2) personal compliments and encouragement, and (3) offers of support, either tangible or intangible. It was a bonus if the message was funny or contained humorous attachments like the video of the dog on the skateboard.

When e-mailing, write as if you are actually talking to the person.

Author of Article photo

Debra Jarvis

One of the first messages I received was from our friend Kevin who owns a beach house. It's a perfect example of tangible support:

Hey, I'm sure that you've got plenty goin' on, but I jes wanted to throw something your way. If, after surgery, you'd like to just get away we'd love to offer up our island house for some “rehab” as needed. You'd be secluded as hell, just the two of you, the water, the whales, the eagles, and Mother Nature. Ooh-la-la! Holler anytime, for anything.

His message is simple, caring, and straightforward – here's what I can offer you, and call for anything.

When e-mailing, write as if you are actually talking to the person – like this message from my friend Michele whose husband was dealing with prostate cancer:

Listen baby,
It is a crappy card to be dealt no matter how you go at it. And that Wes, I am smokin' up prayers for that boy. I think I know his anxiety and fear. But there are a cascade of blessings amidst a load of pain, fear, suffering, and dread. Chuck and I are closer than ever, closer to our true selves, able to pray together and help each other in ways we couldn't have imagined. I love you both, even from a distance of space and time. We are holding you close.

She acknowledges the pain of diagnosis and surgery, shares that she got through it, points out that there are blessing to be found, and then gives an example about being closer to her husband. She tells me she loves us and is praying for us. This is huge. You cannot underestimate the power of telling people that you love them and are praying for them.

Sending a Bible verse or two about how God is always present or how we can't be separated from the love of God is nice. But nix the pages of scripture in the King James filled with verses about trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword, and how we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. When you're fresh out of surgery, you're already feeling a little slaughtered. The last image you want to carry around in your mind is that of a bloody sheep.

My best friend from junior high sent me a wonderful message with a list of well-known people who have been cancer survivors for years. This was encouraging. If you know people who have died of cancer, just keep that to yourself.

If you or your loved one has cancer, and you're sending out e-mail updates, my advice is this: keep them simple, keep them short. It's not necessary to document your drain output – you never know if someone will be reading your e-mail just before dinner.

On the other hand, don't pretend that cancer is just a trip to Disneyland and that your house is the “happiest place on earth.” Be authentic, be real, but there is no need to ascend to the throne of Drama Queen (unless you've always reigned there).

If you're too sick or tired to respond to well-wishers, I suggest, “Auto-reply: I will be back in my body in the near future and will respond to you then.” Everyone can relate to that.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Debra Jarvis is an oncology chaplain at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. This article is adapted from her book It?s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life & Cancer (Sasquatch Books, 2007). For more information about Debra, visit

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2008.