Client with cancer?
August 17, 2007 8:48 AM   Subscribe

A relatively new client sent out a mass email this morning detailing the results of his recent biopsy, which came back positive for cancer. How do I respond?

This client is also one of my father's very good friends, though I have never met him in person and have only spoken to him briefly over the phone. I've done about 4 projects for him, and am currently in the middle of one. Any assistance with responding (via email or otherwise) to his announcement will be most appreciated!
posted by Brocktoon to Human Relations (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Dear ClientName,

I'm so sorry to hear that. You'll be in my thoughts, and please let me know if there's anything I can do for you or your company at this time.

posted by occhiblu at 8:54 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

(The important thing, really, is just to respond, rather than getting all weird about it or hung up on formalities. Send good thoughts his way, in whatever form's most comfortable for you.)
posted by occhiblu at 8:56 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Occhiblu has pretty much nailed it. It doesn't really matter what you say - just a message of support on some level would be polite and probably appreciated.
posted by gomichild at 9:15 AM on August 17, 2007

I would not respond at all. For two reasons.

Number one is mass e-mail. If there are three or more names on the address, I rarely would even read it.

Number two is the subject is unfit for e-mail. Miss Manners explicitly proscribes it in her Communications book on what can go in a phone call, phone message, fax, letter or e-mail. "I have cancer" and "you have cancer" are restricted to face-to-face communication protocol.

(Not that I do everything Miss Manners says; I don't recall ever being invited to anybody's residence for a full course meal, let alone showing up and using the right fork.)
posted by bukvich at 9:16 AM on August 17, 2007

Make sure that if you do reply you do not "reply to all." I think occhiblu's suggestion would work, but I'm not sure if I would reply at all. That is a personal subject and I'm not sure what is expected by sending it out as a mass email.
posted by boreddusty at 9:21 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

bukvich's insistence that a man just diagnosed with cancer should be taken to task for not complying with Miss Manner's rules for proper communication media underscores my point -- people often get freaked out, rude, unsupportive, and pettily bizarre when others are dealing with death. The nicest thing you can do is simply show that you're not freaked out and not going to suddenly impose arcane rules on him in order to make yourself feel better, that you support him in this difficult time.
posted by occhiblu at 9:23 AM on August 17, 2007 [7 favorites]

Also, yes, reply to him personally, not to everyone on the list.
posted by occhiblu at 9:23 AM on August 17, 2007

I would think that someone in his position would greatly value a short, personal and supportive email regardless of etiquette.
posted by ob at 9:30 AM on August 17, 2007

I would send a written note along the lines of Occhiblu's suggestion. Writing one shows you read his email and cared. Responding to the email just proves you read it, but did not or would not take the time to respond if it takes effort. Mention that you will let your father know too.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:36 AM on August 17, 2007

you're amazing, occhiblu.
posted by bluenausea at 9:38 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hand-written note along the lines of occhiblu's suggestion would probably be the best way to go. And then next time you speak/see him, just ask him how he's doing, and then move on to business/reason for you seeing him.
posted by djgh at 9:41 AM on August 17, 2007

The worst thing you could do is not respond at all.
posted by loiseau at 10:00 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

bukvich details why you would not want to write the kind of message your client did, but you should certainly respond to him now that he has. occhiblu points the way.
posted by OmieWise at 10:00 AM on August 17, 2007

The worst thing you could do is not respond at all.

posted by ob at 10:03 AM on August 17, 2007

I would +1 occhiblu with one small alteration: removing the "or your company." Just because it seems to introduce the very slightest possibility that the second sentence could be interpreted as soliciting more work. I think that 99% of people wouldn't interpret it that way, but I'd wrap up that sentence with just "if there's anything I can do" instead.
posted by WCityMike at 10:18 AM on August 17, 2007

Miss Manners is full of it.

My friend who died of cancer had to send out a mass emailing when he was diagnosed-his friends and associates lived all around the world and they would want to be notified.

No, I wouldn't tell a FAMILY MEMBER by email, but the herd? Oh heck yes.

Anyway, a short email back would be fine-a personal note would be even better, especially since he is a friend of your dad.
posted by konolia at 10:21 AM on August 17, 2007

Yeah you have to remember that the guy is probably freaked out right now. Some people respond to this by shutting up shop and others by broadcasting the news. It might be easier that way for him (so that he doesn't have to go through the awkwardness of telling everybody face-to-face) and I certainly think that trying to teach a newly diagnosed cancer patient some etiquette by not responding doesn't exactly smack of empathy...
posted by ob at 10:34 AM on August 17, 2007

yeah, this guy's in shock and oversharing. don't point out his indiscretion right now. a brief response back saying you're sorry to hear the news and wish him a speedy recovery is totally appropriate.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:38 AM on August 17, 2007

If this person were merely a business contact, I might consider not responding. However, he is also a friend of the family. Therefore, I would use occhiblu's suggestion of a short, personal note.

I have sent out mass emails to announce bad news before, even though I'm sure Miss Manners would disapprove. Basically, mass email is, in this modern age, a method that is painless and effortless for the sender, which is really important and useful in times of crisis. That's why people use it. Responses, even short, seemingly pro forma ones, show that people understand and sympathize with your pain. I appreciated every response I received, even those from people I was not close to. This is exactly what manners are for.
posted by decathecting at 10:45 AM on August 17, 2007

I'm self-employed. A client, who I'd previously worked with at a company, sent me an email two or three years ago, letting me know she had cancer. It wasn't part of a mass email, but that doesn't really matter. The point was that she needed to explain why payments, responses and other items might be delayed or lacking. She needed to give a heads-up to all the situations that could arise -- and she didn't say what those were. I could guess, though.

So, your client may not be able to get through this project right now. He may not be able to send your payments on time. He may be financially strapped. His mind may be on other things when you call. He may not be very good at making decisions right now. It's hard to say -- he probably doesn't even know.

It was probably easier to email everyone than to send individual messages that would need to be edited for detail and relevance. He's just giving you a heads-up.

Email back. Say you're sorry to hear the news. Send a note similar to what Brocktoon said, but leave out the "or your company". He can fill in the "or your company" himself.

Be prepared that the project might go awry or that payments may be delayed. Obviously, you have to decide for yourself how to handle those things.

My client didn't say anything to me until I emailed to say I was stopping work until my last (overdue) invoice was paid. That's when she emailed to say she was going through chemo for cancer. I felt like slime, even though I was just following my usual (contractual) policy for overdue accounts for which prior invoices had been ignored.

And I'm glad she let me know. I didn't care that it came through email. Heck, most of my communications come through email. It wasn't like she was my mom -- even then, I don't know that I'd mind the email. My client wasn't in a position to make individual phone calls. I'm sure she wasn't thinking 24-hours a day about her small business. I'm glad she told me, because it changed the way I communicated with her for the next few months. I still cherish the congratulations she sent in response to my (emailed) birth announcement...she died less than 2 weeks later.

So do reply. Keep it brief and non-salesy. And be kind in business dealings with your client. Cut him some slack.
posted by acoutu at 10:57 AM on August 17, 2007

I had included the "or your company" bit to try to get at some of what acoutu's mentioning above, that you're figuring that both you and he going to need to be flexible about the project you're currently working and you're willing to do that.

But I think they're both right, and it that it reads funny. If he's got concerns about the project he probably will email you back about them; right now just support him.
posted by occhiblu at 11:02 AM on August 17, 2007

Yeah you have to remember that the guy is probably freaked out right now. Some people respond to this by shutting up shop and others by broadcasting the news.

It's also possible this is just the way to let people know who he isn't going to speak with personally, so that he doesn't just drop off the face of the earth, to avoid those awkward conversations afterward when someone says to a family member, or to him if he recovers, "hey man, what the hell happened to John from accounting! The guy never showed up to my birthday, plus he owes me twenty bucks..." and they say, "um, chemotherapy, actually." If that's the case, it may not matter all that much to him whether you respond; he just wants to keep you in the loop without having to make a big to-do with every acquaintance.

I would be honest - if reading it made you feel sad for the guy and want to tell him something, then send a nice note letting him know you were thinking of him. If reading it made you think, what business is this of mine? then just consider it informative. I'm sure he has bigger things on his mind than whether business contacts send him notes, though in all likelihood he's in a more receptive state than usual.
posted by mdn at 11:12 AM on August 17, 2007

One of my clients got hit pretty hard by "a lupus-like illness" a couple of years ago. I sent a card, but otherwise tried to keep the relationship the same as it had ever been. Except that I changed invoice terms from Net 30 to Payable Upon Receipt*.

*Kidding. I actually took on a few project management tasks I don't normally do (for which I was paid), to help out a bit.
posted by notyou at 12:56 PM on August 17, 2007

Thanks everyone, all very helpful responses!
posted by Brocktoon at 1:52 PM on August 17, 2007

*similar to what occhiblu said, I mean.
posted by acoutu at 11:35 PM on August 17, 2007

I'm in the group that thinks mailing a handwritten note would be a good thing. This is the age of instant communication, and doing things the old fashioned way shows that you actually took some time out to do this, not just the 8 or 10 seconds it takes to shoot back an email. It's why newlyweds don't email "thank you" notes (well, that and tradition).

occhiblu pretty much has the content nailed, although i'd leave off the "or your company." He will imply this if it's what he's thinking/concerned about.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 12:00 AM on August 18, 2007

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