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Cancer empathy cards: They say what patients REALLY want to hear

After a friend died of cancer, Emily McDowell, a cancer survivor herself, designed a line of Empathy Cards for people with serious illness.
/ Source: TODAY
An Empathy Card from Emily McDowell Studio, intended for a recipient with a serious

Three and a half years ago, Emily McDowell’s friend Amy Ostermeier became ill with an unknown and aggressive form of cancer. McDowell understood what Ostermeier was experiencing, because when she was 24 she had gone through nine months of chemo and radiation to treat her stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma.

“I was able to be present for her in a different way than a lot of other people were,” McDowell told TODAY. “I understood cancer and hospitals and treatments, and that made me not afraid of it."

As McDowell comforted Ostermeier, she remembered what having cancer is like, even though hers has been in remission for the past 15 years. Grappling with the loneliness of being sick had been difficult; many friends and family disappeared after her diagnosis. At the time she thought people didn’t care about her, but as time passed, McDowell realized that they simply didn’t know what to say.

“It was more that everyone was just afraid. That experience really stayed with me,” she said.

Ostermeier died of liver failure three months after her diagnosis. As McDowell grieved for her friend, she remembered Ostermeier’s bravery. “She was really inspiring in terms of how she lived her life, and it inspired me to quit my job, knowing that I was going to do something that resonated more for who I was as a person.”

So McDowell started a freelance career designing greeting cards. As her business grew, she knew she wanted to create empathy cards for illness. On Monday she finally released her line of Empathy Cards: Support for Serious Illness, designed to blend wit, awkward truths and understanding.“You start to feel like you are only cancer, but I am the same person as I was yesterday before I got the news,” McDowell said. “Finding things that are universal emotional truths about [illness] and using them to create products to connect with people — this is really how I approached it.”

The 11 cards bear such messages as “I promise never to refer to your illness as a ‘journey’ unless someone takes you on a cruise” and “I’m so sorry you’re sick. I want you to know that I will never try to sell you on some random treatment I read about on the Internet.” They come from McDowell’s experiences.

“It plays on my coping skills, how I see things, my own sense of humor,” she said. “What I wanted to be as my goal was to have the recipients of these cards be heard and loved and understood.”

The responses McDowell has received show she succeeded. “[They are] really happy to see their own experiences reflected and feel like they are being spoken to,” she said of Empathy Card recipients.

McDowell releases cards twice yearly — in January and May — and she will continue to add to her line. She hopes her Empathy Cards will help people cope.

“Our culture doesn’t do a very good job at preparing us to be present for other people’s suffering and pain,” she said. “Our culture is very afraid of those kinds of emotions.”