Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Q. Friend With the Worst Laugh Ever: I have a friend who’s smart, successful, and funny. She also has a full-throttled, loud, throaty laugh that must be a nervous tick after almost everything she says. It’s grating and horrible. I doubt she knows it, but it’s definitely something that harms her with new people, jobs, etc. How do I raise the laugh issue with her without it turning into that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine Benes’ co-worker goes berserk after Elaine tells her that she walks without moving her arms?
A: I accept that her joyful noise is like fingernails on chalkboard to you. You say she is successful, so consider whether her laugh is really harming her as much as you think. But I take you at your word that hers is the kind of maddening habit that with constant exposure makes everyone in earshot start to feel grumpy. It is a very delicate thing to bring up such a topic and if you decide to do it you have to be prepared that your critique of her levity may damage your relationship. But if her laugh makes you cringe when around her, then you may not have that much to lose. So at lunch sometime you say, “Stacy, you are smart and funny and I adore you. You have joie de vivre. But sometimes your joie is a little too much. I know this is awkward, but when you laugh after almost everything you say, it ends up undermining you.” Assuming she doesn’t storm out of the restaurant and considers what you have to say, you could then suggest that she go to Toastmasters. There people will give her instant feedback on her vocal tic which should help ameliorate it. A person who does media training could also help her become more aware of her habit and find ways to curb it. Let’s hope your friend realizes that her incessant chortling is no laughing matter.
Dear Prudence: Tempest in a Teapot
Q. Breast Cancer Gene Test: My wife’s middle sister died of breast cancer at an early age in 2001. This summer, her older sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through a double mastectomy. On the advice of her gynecologist, my wife met with an oncologist and a geneticist to see what precautions she should take. There is a gene test available (BRCA) to determine if the breast cancer is hereditary. However, the geneticist said that it would only be useful if the sister with breast cancer had the test first. This is where the problem lies: My wife and her sister are completely estranged and have been for years. It is a situation beyond repair due to the older sister’s treatment of my wife. My wife made one attempt to ask about the test and was rebuffed with a statement that the older sister’s insurance wouldn’t pay for the test. This is basically a red herring as the cost of the test would be well within her means without question. The question is does my wife just give up on pursuing this? We have a daughter, the older sister has a daughter, and the middle sister had two daughters who would also be impacted by the test results.
A: I understand that it’s helpful to trace a gene through the family, but the middle sister is gone, and the older sister won’t take the test. I don’t know why this means it’s useless for your wife to get it. Either your wife has the gene or she doesn’t. Let’s say there was no older sister in the family. Your wife would still have a first degree relative who died young of breast cancer, so it would be perfectly reasonable for your wife to want to know if she herself carried a BRCA gene. I suggest your wife get this all clarified with the geneticist, or simply go see a new geneticist and explain why she wants the test. When she gives her history, when the question of whether the older sister is positive for BRCA comes up, your wife can explain her sister does not want to find out.
Update, Sept. 24: I’ve heard from a number of genetic counselors explaining why testing the sister with breast cancer first is recommended (and who pointed out I should have written BRCA gene mutations). Here’s one’s explanation:
“The reason that the geneticist wanted the older sister with breast cancer tested for the known BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations first is because the testing is not perfect, and not all families with clear predisposition to breast and ovarian cancer can be identified by current genetic tests. There could be a BRCA1/2 gene mutation not found by current technology or a mutation in a different gene. So if the younger sister who does not have breast cancer went ahead and had BRCA1/2 gene testing and it was negative, this wouldn’t rule out higher risk for breast cancer due to a different genetic change in the family that she could have inherited. If the older sister was tested and she did have a known BRCA1/2 mutation, and the younger sister was negative for it, that would be a best case result for her. If a family member with breast cancer had testing and her specific BRCA1/2 mutation was found, then other family members could be tested for this specific change and get a true positive or negative result. That being said, it certainly happens that there are sometimes no other family members who have had cancer who are available to test. In that situation, many genetic counselors may discuss pursuing genetic testing, but with the strong caveat that a negative test result cannot be completely reassuring. But if the result was positive for a known BRCA1/2 mutation that would give her information for future medical care, and other family members could be tested for that change as well.”
That explained the fact that genetic testing may not completely clarify things. But I still think if the younger, cancer-free sister wants to get tested for known mutations, she should do so, armed with the cautions about the usefulness of this information.
Q. Bad Mother, Bad Mother-in-Law?: Ever since my daughter got married our relationship has deteriorated substantially. She and her husband are animal lovers—four to six cats and a dog in the house all day and night. They brought the dog to my 86-year-old dad’s house and he made them keep it in the garage because we are all allergic. My son-in-law “will never cross their doorstep again”—it has been downhill ever since. He spends all the holidays at his mother’s and wants us to come there instead of spending it with my folks. Now my daughter is pregnant and I can’t even spend time in their home without choking up and getting itchy. What is the best way to approach this and keep the peace?
A: Your unallergic daughter may be overreacting to her inability to have childhood pets. But it’s most unfortunate these two adults act as if they don’t understand you can’t bring your own pet to the home of a person who can’t breathe when exposed to dander. Based on the “never cross the doorstep” remark your son-in-law sounds like quite the jerk. But your daughter married him, is starting a family with him, and this new behavior is a test that’s rigged toward making you flunk. So do your best to figure out how to finesse the trick questions. With as much patience and lightness as you can, deal with the issues one by one. “Courtney, I’m so glad you can finally have the animals you always wanted, but I can’t be in the house with them, Sweetie, so it would be easier if you could visit at my place. I’m so excited about the baby and I can’t wait to see you!” You say that you understand now that she’s married that holidays get divided, so you want to figure out a way that makes everyone happy. I think this year you should accept the invitation to the son-in-law’s family home. You can explain that perhaps you have to come by only for dessert because you need to spend most of the day with your parents. Or maybe you go for dinner and convince your daughter and son-in-law to come to your folks for dessert. Of course it would be easier if you could just call them out on their unreasonableness, but I think that will only cause the unreasonableness to escalate. Do some jujitsu by acknowledging the important place the animals have in their lives and saying you want to work around that.
Q. Friend Borrowed Money: I gave my friend a loan when she started a very promising business. Then recently she was diagnosed with cancer. I know I sound completely heartless but I really, really need her to pay me back. How can I approach this with her?
A: I think you forgot the rule that said never loan money to friends or family that you are not able to write off entirely. Of course all new businesses are promising—you wouldn’t invest in a business that seemed certain to fail. But now the person who is probably the sole proprietor is dealing with a serious illness, so I’m assuming the business is ailing, too. It just might be that no matter how much you need this money, and fast, that she simply doesn’t have the funds to give you. I hope you did some paperwork to outline the terms of the loan and a repayment schedule. However, it sounds like you didn’t. You say she was recently diagnosed with cancer, so it would hard to think of a worse time for you to come calling asking for a check. Let the poor woman find out her prognosis and treatment plan. Maybe if things aren’t so bad and she can continue to work during her treatment, in a few months—after you have been sufficiently helpful and attentive to a sick friend—you can delicately broach this topic. If however she is heading toward a siege of surgery, hospitalization, and tough chemo, then it looks like tough luck for you.
Q. Weddings for the Unblended Family: My father and his former wife split up three years ago. She was my stepmother all through my teens, though more like an older sister than a mother, and we remain friends. My father and she have been locked in an expensive, pointless custody battle over where their three children will spend birthdays and school holidays for two years. So when I announced I was getting married, my father said he would only come if my stepmother was not invited. We then discussed having a separate party for his side of the family instead, which was his idea that I eventually agreed to so I could celebrate with them both. Months go by, and he can’t find the time for a separate party, so today, one month until the wedding, I get a message from him asking me to dis-invite my stepmother so that he can come to my wedding. Now, he’s clearly out of line, but he’s also my dad and “technically” family. Can I tell him he missed his chance, or should I try to accommodate him again?
A: With this portrait I am not puzzled that your father and stepmother are getting divorced, but I’m left to wonder why she married him in the first place. I just hope your father is not the selfish jerk he appears here, more concerned with manipulating those close to him than looking out for the happiness of his children. I think the “one side of the family” celebration is ridiculous and I’m glad it’s cratering. You tell your father that no one is getting dis-invited. You explain it’s your wedding so it would mean a lot to you to have him there. Then you say that if declines to come, he will be missed.
Q. Weighty Family Problem: My brother-in-law weighs at least 400 pounds and seems to gain more each time I see him. A few months ago, following a holiday dinner, we realized that he had broken the chair that he was seated in. The joints on the chair were falling apart and required a $150 repair. At another relative’s house we realized he avoided sitting in most of the chairs there because he was obviously nervous about their ability to withstand his weight. Prudie, now this year’s holidays are approaching and I’m not sure what to do when I extend invitations. Should I, a) Not invite these members of our close family (awkward!); b) invite them and then suck it up when I have to pay another $150 to repair the chair again, or worse, have the chair collapse on the floor, risking injury to my brother-in-law; or c) have an awkward conversation before I extend the invitation and confess that I don’t know what to do about this situation (though I can’t imagine actually bringing this embarrassing topic up)? Different family members, including my husband, have tried to bring up the topic of weight and health in a positive way but my brother-in-law was not receptive. On top of this, my husband and I are very fit so if we bring up a weight problem it seems like we’re being judgmental. My husband and his brother have not talked for years at a time following past disagreements over other topics, which have since been resolved. At the moment, we’re still a close, mostly happy family but I’m afraid we’ll start an ugly feud if we never invite them over for a celebration because of this weight issue.
A: You don’t say, “Harry, this year we rented a forklift, so you’ll be sitting it in outside in the yard, but we’ll bring you plate of turkey and stuffing.” Your brother-in-law is so morbidly obese that you must recognize that in due course he could eat himself to death. That will put in perspective the problem of chair repair. You invite him then you go to a furniture rental store and explain your needs. If an appropriate chair rental is costly, maybe everyone in the family can quietly chip in so that Harry feels welcome and confident when he takes a load off. I assure you Harry knows how big he is, so while you can discuss the size of the turkey, do not mention the size of Harry. Your brother-in-law is suffering, so what a good lesson it will be for the children when they see everyone treating him like a welcome guest.
Q. Re: BRCA test: FWIW, I wanted to have the test as well (two sisters with breast cancer), and my doctor also said that my surviving sister was the one who needed to be tested. I don’t know why. Maybe another reader or medical professional will know.
A: Another reader said all this may have something to do with insurance. You might need confirmation that a close relative has the mutation in order to get the test covered. This explanation makes sense in the nonsensical way of our health care system. It would be a shame if one dead sister and one sick sister was not enough to justify a third sister getting the information she needed to make crucial decisions about her life without having to pay entirely out of pocket.
Q. Lunch Invitation: My husband and I visited our 23-year-old daughter at her apartment in another city, about two hours from us. We had brought some things from home for her to have (a used but thoroughly clean oriental rug and a wood furniture with shelves). She was very appreciative and invited us out to lunch as a thank you. Lunch cost about $50–$55 at a lovely sit-down restaurant nearby—her choice. I was grateful, and easily accepted her invitation. My husband (and her dad) completely disagreed, tried at first to dissuade her then tried to share an entree. Our daughter encouraged him to have his own and said that the entrees there would be too small to share. He did order his own plate, but told me the next day that I should not have encouraged her to take us out. How do you see it?
A: For you, your daughter was a young woman who was delighting you with her embrace of the responsibilities of adulthood. To her father this day was a reminder that his baby will always be his baby. (There may also have been his economic perspective that if she spends the $50 on you two, he’ll just be hit up for it later.) I agree that Dad should have let your daughter feel like a grown-up and not been silly about the entree. But carrying on this beef over how much beef was ordered is also silly. I think you should go to your husband and acknowledge it’s both wonderful and difficult to see that your little girl is launched. Tell him coming to terms with is something you two are going to struggle with for a while and in your own ways.
Q. Re: My friend has cancer and owes me money: Put it in perspective and be glad you are healthy. Remember that friends help sick friends and know she’ll need that money for chemo while you are healthy and comfortable and pain free. Forget the money and ask what else you can do to help this friend, take her to the doctor, hold her hand, fix her food, clean her house and then go home and thank your lucky stars for your health.
A: Thank you, nicely put. And another reader wondered if the payback has something to do with worries the friend might not make it—if so, blech.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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