What not to say to someone who has cancer

I have to start this post with two disclaimers, as follows:

  1. Although it seems like I’m mainly slating what people have said to me over the past 6 weeks, in a rather mean way – for the most part (with one exception), everyone says what they think is best in a difficult situation.  No one, I’m sure, actively sets out to say the wrong thing, and I appreciate everything everyone has said, because they made the effort to say something, even if it was the wrong thing.
  2. Everyone in this situation is different – what I find tooth-grittingly irritating, someone else may find more comforting than a cuddle with a baby panda.  So use your own judgement, depending on who the person is and how well you know them.  For example, the first time my big brother saw me after my lymph node removal operation, he greeted me with ‘alright, scar-neck?’, which is perfectly acceptable from a sibling, but I might have found a little surprising from, say, a colleague at work.

Ok, so those niceties out of the way, onwards with a small sample of what people have said to me so far, and why I hate them.

  • ‘You poor, poor thing, I am so sorry for you.’

This may not be the case for everyone, but personally, pity makes me want to throw up, dramatically, while yelling ‘DON’T FEEL SORRY FOR ME, I’M NOT THE ONE WHO THOUGHT THAT HAIRCUT WAS A GOOD IDEA.’  I understand that you think you’re being empathetic, but it’s not the right vibe.

Instead of pity, try positive, but empathetic, statements, such as, ‘what a thing to have to go through – I’m here for whatever you need’, or ‘you can do this, I totally believe in you’, or ‘I understand how frightening this must be but you’re young and fit and healthy and you’ll get through this without a backwards glance.’  Basically, think cheerleader-style positivity, but maybe stop short of the pom-poms and yelling ‘GIVE ME A C! GIVE ME AN A!  GIVE ME AN N!’ and so on.

  • ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through.’

In my opinion, this is literally the crappest thing you can say to someone having any kind of difficult time, and to which the only logical response would be, well, TRY.  ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through’ – what, you want me to paint you a picture?  (Which would be of very little use, frankly, because anyone who knows me knows that my sketching repertoire is limited to cartoon cats.  Maybe I could try and explain a cancer diagnosis through the medium of cartoon cats – that would keep me busy).

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that it’s rubbish, and it all comes down to empathy.  I’m the kind of person who can’t leave a solitary baked bean in the bottom of the can in case it feels left out of the toast party that all its mates are going to, so I don’t really have any issues empathising with other people, but I know some people do.  If you are that person, genuinely take 10 minutes out of your charmed life to put yourself in someone else’s place and try to imagine what it might feel like to go through something so frightening that you keep wondering whether you’re actually trapped in a horrible nightmare and you’ll wake up any minute now and regret all that cheese before bed, and then think about what you would like someone to say to you in that situation.

  • ‘What will you do about the mouth ulcers/constipation/other miscellaneous hideous side effect of chemo?’

This one is genuinely well meaning, but not helpful.  Everyone reacts to chemo differently, so everyone gets different side-effects, and you don’t know what they will be until they happen to you, like some kind of fun Pass-The-Parcel, but in hell.  If your cousin has had chemo and found that it gave her an uncanny ability to smell sausages from three houses away, that’s all good, but it’s unlikely to happen to the next person you know who has chemo, so save it.

If you feel desperate to share a story about a close friend or relative’s experience with cancer treatment, choose a positive one, such as, ‘my mum had chemo last year and now she has the all clear and is in perfect health.’  I’ve heard enough scary stuff from the doctors, I don’t need any more from you.  Which leads me perfectly on to…

  • ‘My friend died of terminal cancer.’

This isn’t something I would have ever thought I would have to advise against saying, but someone genuinely cornered me at a party not long after my diagnosis and spent half an hour telling me in some detail about how her friend died slowly and painfully of a rare cancer.  I kid you not.

No amount of me saying, ‘I’m so sorry about your friend, but my situation is quite different because it’s been caught quite early’ could shut her up and I was on the point of wondering if I could muffle her by shoving a passing canape into her mouth, or headbutt her in the nose and make it look like I tripped over a waiter when fortunately someone else caught my wide-eyed desperation and rescued me from the most inappropriate conversation I’ve had since Dr Ruth’s hen do, where the multiple doctors gathered regaled everyone with tales of things people put up their bums.  I joke, but this genuinely upset me (the inappropriate cancer story, not the things up bums stories). Unless you have the social skills of Osama Bin Laden, you shouldn’t need to be told this.

  • ‘I don’t know how you cope.’

Well, actually, I just spend the day dragging myself around the house, wailing at the sky, tearing at my clothes and yelling WHY GOD WHY.  I think this statement is unhelpfully unempathetic, again – obviously, I cope like you would cope, or anyone else, by taking one day at a time, having the support of my friends and family and just getting through it.  And by slagging off what people say to me online, obviously.

The bottom line here, is to think about what you would want someone to say to you in this situation and then say it to the person who’s going through it – even if it’s the wrong thing to say, at least you’ve given it some thought, rather than just opening your mouth and letting the words drift out.  One in three people will get a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives, so one day it may be you – and if you’re lucky enough not to experience it, you sure as hell will know someone close to you who goes through it at some point.  Empathy is key.  Don’t have the social skills of a sardine.

And, if all else fails, offer practical help – cook a dinner that can be easily heated up and drop it round, offer to give lifts or go to appointments, send a card saying you’re thinking of them, think of practical gifts you could give.  Lucy, a friend of mine, sent me a mindful colouring book and some felt tips and it has been one of the most useful, thoughtful and therapeutic things anyone has given me.  Thank you, Lucy.

And finally, if you are the person going through it, and someone says the wrong thing, memorise and use this phrase judiciously;

‘Thank you for your concern but I’d prefer not to talk about it – I’m sure you understand.’

No one is likely to argue with that, and if they do, you could use this other phrase, which is just as handy, but a bit shorter, and should preferably be delivered with a polite smile:





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