By Lisa Parker

Eleven years ago, I lost my stepfather to pancreatic cancer. The time from diagnosis to death was short. When doctors delivered the news he was terminal, the cancer was so advanced palliative care was the only real option. That’s not to say he wasn’t willing to try to fight. He was ready to make an attempt at chemo. The cancer had other plans. He had a bleeding event before his first oncology appointment.

For those who are not familiar with pancreatic cancer, a common cause for death is an internal bleed. The cells are extremely fragile. When a bleed starts, you have to cauterize the site if there is any chance to survive the event. He went through the emergency surgical procedure once. He decided when he started bleeding again, there were no ifs to hope for,he would allow the process to continue in the comfort of his home with the aid of Hospice. It was a choice, his choice, made bravely and with a realistic understanding of his situation. His mother died from pancreatic cancer, you see. Two weeks later he was gone.

In the short time between diagnosis and death a lot happened. Word spread quickly through our tiny town. My stepfather had been a teacher at the high school for 30 years so he knew everyone. He immediately retired from teaching. It was a blow, but the strong showing of friends helped him through. The phone calls and in-person visits were continuous.

What was also continuous was the advice about what he should be doing to combat this disease. Many who loved him weren’t ready to accept there was no hope. He needed to fight. I get it. Inaction and a negative mindset rarely solve problems. The thing is, sometimes the acceptance of reality is the only way to find the best path during difficult times. Had my stepfather taken action as recommended by those who had never been in his shoes and attempted to keep pace with the ‘you can overcome this’ outlook of those who weren’t facing a challenge as significant as end stage pancreatic cancer, he’d of missed out on the amazingly beautiful quality time we had with him in those final weeks of his life.

What was the advice? Everything you can imagine. My mother was on the receiving end of most of it because people wanted, expected, her to do something and do it before it was too late. Can you imagine how that sounded to my mother? That the inevitable outcome of her husband’s death would be on her shoulders if she didn’t act beyond providing comfort in his final weeks of life? After his first bleeding event, he was barely able to leave the house. A close friend of his urged my mother to get my stepfather on a plane and fly him to South America for a special treatment that was showing miracle results with pancreatic cancer. The suggestion was made with the best of intentions. It terms of advice, it stunk and it was not helpful. We couldn’t have gotten him to an airport, let alone another country. Had we managed, he would have died on the plane or in a foreign country away from the comfort of his friends and home. There were no miracles to be had.

Others had all sorts of recommendations in terms of diet supplements and food options to help him regain his strength and turn things around. My stepfather couldn’t keep a thing down. Pancreatic cancer and end of life processes have a similar effect of food aversion. My stepfather had a double whammy there. I remember getting so angry when food options would sit untouched. I wanted him to eat. He was wasting away. I held my tongue though. I knew my stepfather really wanted to live. He loved life. My sister was pregnant at the time with what would become his first grandchild. Knowing that, it was clear to me if he could eat, he would. He couldn’t. Protein shakes became is source of nutrition.

Chiropractic recommendations were offered. Mind you, my stepfather had been under chiropractic care for the better part of 15 years at that point and it failed to prevent the cancer. In fact, the back pain he’d been complaining about in recent years wasn’t considered as a sign of cancer as early as it should have been as it was viewed to be part of a continuing problem. Chiropractic care wasn’t going to fix my stepfather. His fragile frame and even more fragile cells made a harmful outcome more likely.

The list of advice goes on…

I’m sharing this story for a reason. We have become a nation of people determined to give advice on all matters, regardless of our true knowledge of and experience with a situation. It’s modeled for us by highly paid news personalities who can roll from one topic to another citing what they would do and pointing out how those closely involved are handling it all wrong. They are expert enough to give advice on vaccinations, foreign policy, warfare, secondary education and celebrity weddings. I marvel at the versatility and diversity of knowledge. We believe a few quick internet searches can tool us with the answers those around us who are struggling need to get through their situation. We hold on dearly to a single example of a miraculous outcome and raise it as the gold standard norm.

Most times there is no ill intent. To the contrary, there is a deep need to help, to show care, to support another and to inspire change. Here comes the harsh part. That’s not a good enough reason to give out advice on things you don’t truly understand or appreciate. Advice is for those who have been there or worked closely with those who have. If we’ve never had a terminal disease or been alongside someone who has, we can’t advise on how to handle the process. If we’ve never lived in absolute poverty or been alongside someone who has, we can’t advise on how to put your life back together in those conditions. If we’ve never lost a child or been alongside someone who has, we can’t advise on how to move forward. If we’ve never struggled with an addiction or been alongside someone who has, we can’t advise on how to stop the cycle.

There are those who are in a position to give meaningful advice. The rest of us are giving opinions…opinions that may or may not be helpful. Those dealing with the issues that inspire the need to give advice would prefer action. We can all act. We can make a meal for a family going through end of life care. We can help pay an electric bill or provide school supplies for a family in need. We can look after children during doctor appointments for parents with illnesses. We can help outfit someone for a job. We can drive an addict to support group appointments. We can give someone a hug. We can hold their hand.

We can be fair about the challenge others are facing by not suggesting they are so simple a person with no experience navigating them is in the right position to give advice.


Lisa joined the Michigan State University Alumni Association as Director of Alumni Career & Business Services on May 1, 2012. Her primary focus is to develop effective networking and resource channels for experienced alumni interested in professional development and job search strategy assistance. Additionally, Lisa works directly with corporate, education, foundation and government partners seeking to attract qualified talent, retain and develop good employees, and establish collaborative relationships in line with their established goals and objectives.

To hear about one young woman’s journey of getting career/life advice, check out our free webcast, “How to Build Relationships: The 52 Cups Story” LIVE on Thursday, 09/04/2014, at 11am EST. Or watch the recorded version here:

(The opinions and views expressed throughout this blog are of the writer(s), and may not be the official views and opinions of Michigan State University.)



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