Episode #30: Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a writer, activist, and national lecturer. A founding editor of Ms. Magazine, she is the author of eleven books, among them two novels — Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate and Three Daughters — as well as the guidebook, How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick, and two acclaimed memoirs, Getting Over Getting Older, and Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America. She won an Emmy Award for her work as Consulting Editor on Free to Be, You & Me, Marlo Thomas’ ground-breaking children's record, book and TV special.

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A leader in numerous civic and social justice causes, she served two terms as President of The Authors Guild, a national organization dedicated to the protection of writers’ copyright and contract rights; and two terms as Chair of the Board of Americans for Peace Now, an advocacy organization working to promote a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her devotion to advancing equality and intergroup harmony inspired her to co-found several Black-Jewish and Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups. She was also a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus; the Ms. Foundation for Women; the UJA-Federation Task Force on Women, and the International Center for Peace in the Middle East. Currently, she serves on the Boards of the Harvard Divinity School Women in Religion Program; the Brandeis University Women's and Gender Studies Program; and the Free to Be Foundation. Her many honors include a Yale University Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, a Brandeis University Alumni Achievement award, and inclusion in Who’s Who in America. She lives in New York with her husband, Bert, a lawyer.

About ten years ago, Letty Cottin Pogrebin was sitting in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan Kettering when she had the idea for a book. It was a book she was hoping to read, but when she searched for it, she found that it hadn’t been written yet. The topic — how, as an adult, to be supportive of a sick friend or family member — was personal to her, as she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. And it was personal to the people in the waiting room, too, some of whom she interviewed for the book that she ultimately wrote, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick. On today’s episode, Letty and I talk about the difficulty of finding the right words when you learn someone is sick, the kinds of language she prefers to use and avoid, and why it can be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to hearing bad news about someone’s health. She also talks about why honesty should be the foundation for your efforts to be supportive, and gives her practical tips for being a friend to patients and caregivers who are navigating health challenges. (One tip: when in doubt, bring ice cream!)

All my illnesses have been invisible. I have had to choose to make them visible.

Here are some of the things Letty and I chatted about:

  • The moment, after getting a mammogram, when she knew that it wasn’t a routine visit

  • The challenge of deciding who to tell after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer

  • Why she dislikes the question “How are you?” and prefers “What’s happening” or “What’s new?”

  • The best way to be a friend to someone sick or in mourning: being honest with them

  • Why it’s crucial — especially when giving a gift — to be mindful of the reality of someone’s illness

  • The easiest way to give a gift that will be appreciated — whether the person is sick, recovering, or waiting for test results

  • How the idea for her book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, came to her naturally

  • How friends can be there for caregivers, who many times need just as much support as the person who is sick

  • Why, as someone who is sick, hearing “encouragement” to fight or be brave feels like a burden

  • The tone-deaf comments she’s heard over the years, and the negative impact they can have

  • Why relating to your own experience with an illness — good or bad — doesn’t help a person who is sick

  • Her own recent knee-jerk response when hearing a friend’s health news, and how she handled it

If you really care, you do the personal and the special and the thoughtful.



Follow Letty on Facebook or check out her website.


Support for this episode comes from Ouchie. Ouchie is a free app for iOS and Android that provides solutions for chronic pain management. It uses evidence-backed tools like cognitive behavioral therapy, pain tracking, community support, access to resources, and integration with clinicians to help people feel better, faster. Check out ouchie.com and download the Ouchie app to see for yourself. Make sure to share with them that you found the app through Made Visible!

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krista gray