I’ll never forget the first few confusing weeks after my breast cancer diagnosis. I had a new medical language to learn and many decisions that I felt wholly unqualified to make. My days were filled with medical appointments, and my nights with mind-numbing reading, hoping to understand what was happening to me. It was a terrifying time, and I never needed my friends and family more.
Yet many of the things they said, although kindly meant, often didn’t lead to comfort. Here are things I wish people didn’t say:
“You are so brave/a warrior/a survivor.”
“You’ll beat this.”
“I couldn’t do it.”
And the most infamous of them all, “Stay positive.”
If you see us as brave, it’s because you haven’t been there when we had a breakdown in the shower. We don’t feel heroic simply because we show up for our doctor’s appointments. We also know you could do it, as nobody is given a choice.
The cheery phrases meant to elevate our emotional state are the hardest to take. My cancer is stage 4, which so far is incurable. The odds are good that I won’t be “fine” forever. When you say, “You’ll beat this” or “Stay positive,” it sounds dismissive, like you’re ignoring what is actually happening. We patients hear, “This person doesn’t understand.”
We shouldn’t be admonished to stay positive when facing cancer and perhaps death. And we should be allowed to cry, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Don’t forget: There are hundreds of thousands of wonderful women with the most positive of attitudes now in their graves. We need to hear an acknowledgment of the enormity of what we are facing, not platitudes.
We share our bad news with somebody, and instantly that person mentions their family cancer experience. “Oh, my great-uncle had cancer. He died.”
Sharing life experiences with each other is what humans do to relate, but as cancer patients, we may not be ready to hear about the failures that await us. If you feel you must share a cancer story, make sure that it’s one that ends well. We’re fully aware that death may be at the end of this road, but that doesn’t mean you should be the one to tell us. That’s what our doctors are for. Which brings me to …
“Don’t you know that sugar feeds cancer?”
“Have you tried apricot kernels mixed with turmeric yet?”
“Baking soda is a cancer cure that Big Pharma is hiding!”
“Why are you putting that poisonous chemo in your body? You should go natural!”
I have a highly trained oncologist guiding me. I’ve read college biology textbooks and countless journal articles. I understand how my cancer works, the history of this disease, and how complicated it is. I know that nothing simplistic will solve this problem, and I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. Some things are completely out of our control, which is a frightening idea to many, and the motivation behind some of these theories.
When the time comes that a friend gets cancer and refuses medical treatment in order to encase their body in plastic wrap to sweat the disease out, I won’t offer up my opinions. Instead, I’ll wish them well. At the same time, I would appreciate the same courtesy. It’s a simple matter of respect and trust.
“You are so lucky — you get a free boob job!”
“Your head is a beautiful shape.”
“You don’t look like you have cancer.”
“Why do you have hair?”
I’ve never had as many compliments on my appearance as I did when I was diagnosed. It’s really made me wonder what people imagine cancer patients look like. Basically, we look like people. Sometimes bald people, sometimes not. Baldness is temporary and anyway, whether our head is shaped like a peanut, a dome, or the moon, we have bigger things to think about.
When you comment on the shape of our head, or seem surprised that we still look the same, we feel like an outlier, different than the rest of humanity. Ahem: We also don’t get perky new breasts. It’s called reconstruction because they are trying to put something back together that has been damaged or removed. It will never look or feel natural.
As a side note? The word “lucky” and “cancer” should never be paired together. Ever. In any sense.
Of course, we cancer patients all know that you meant well, even if what you said was awkward. But it would be more helpful to know what to say, wouldn’t it?
There is one universal phrase that works for all situations, and all people, and that is: “I’m really sorry this has happened to you.” You don’t need much more than that.
If you want to, you can add, “Would you like to talk about it?” And then … just listen.
Ann Silberman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. She has undergone numerous surgeries and is on her eighth chemo regimen, but she keeps smiling. You can follow her journey on her blog, But Doctor … I Hate Pink!