With every “how-to-support-a-cancer-patient” list that I’ve read, there’s always one or two things that I don’t relate to.

 By: Robin Harry

With every “how-to-support-a-cancer-patient” list that I’ve read, there’s always one or two things that I don’t relate to. Sometimes there are things that do resonate with me, but the comments section will always reveal other cancer patients/supporters who think it’s ludicrous. Everyone’s experience with cancer is specific to themselves, and the word “typical” or “general” really never applies. Well, I’ve avoided making a list successfully until two weeks ago when I listened to someone ramble on for about 10 minutes about how “negative thoughts become part of our bodies”…SERIOUSLY?!?

I thought about it and I realized that I could just make a list based on my experiences. All of the following are things I heard or things people said (or didn’t say) that were well-intentioned but badly said, or just plain ridiculous. Where I can, I’ll offer alternative ways of expressing those thoughts that might help others know what to say, instead of what not to say. Warning, this is going to be long:


1. Silence.
This is easily number one. It’s the most resonant and the least understood. Saying things that are dumb are much more easily forgiven and forgotten than saying nothing at all. I can laugh at the crazy things, but I can’t laugh at nothing. As a cancer patient, I understood that it’s hard to know the right thing to say, that cancer is heavy and scary and creepy. But I will never understand or accept why people chose to say nothing.
An alternative: “Robin, I really don’t know what to say.”
It really is that simple. Just start off with that. You’d be surprised by what you learn at the end of that conversations.

2. Why You? or Why did YOU have to get cancer??
What the hell kind of a question is that, anyway? Again, I understand the sentiment, I’m a lovely person and don’t deserve cancer, and I’m thankful for that. However, what that question translates to is, “what did you do to deserve cancer?” It implies that there must be a reason for it. Even worse, that question lies on the premise that there are people who DO deserve cancer, which is ridiculous. Who would those people be? Are we talking homicidal/genocidal/war criminal maniacs? Or is the guy who cut you off on the 401 in that list of people? When you think about it that way, you can see that a simple two word question is loaded with a lot of meaning.
An alternative: “I’m really sorry that you have to go through this.”
That’s simpler and more effective. It conveys the personal meaning without sounding judgemental.

3. I heard you have the “C” word./I know you’re “busy”./How is the…”thing”?
Cancer is not Voldemort. It is not “the disease that shall not be named”. It is not a dark, powerful, magical entity. It’s cancer. Nobody tells a heart attack patient, “I heard you had an H”, or a stroke patient, “I heard you had a…thing”. And I’m not “busy”, I’m sick. So why the reluctance to say the word cancer? When people hesitated to say the word, all that did was make it more psychologically powerful, and made me annoyed. Besides, even if the word scared people, it didn’t make it any less real for me.
An alternative:“I heard you have cancer”. That’s the only thing that should have ever been said.

4. I meant to visit./I meant to call./I wanted to help you.

I’ve talked about this before in another blog post, so I’m not going to rehash it all here. The gist of it is this, while the intention was there, the follow-through wasn’t, so all these sentences did was make me feel like an unimportant afterthought and inconvenience.
An alternative: I’m sorry I didn’t visit/call/help etc.
If you really did mean to do these things but didn’t, start with an apology. It’ll go a long way.

5. I think the government/drug companies have the cure for cancer, but aren’t giving it.
And yes, I actually heard this. Twice. First, here’s the translation: “You’re suffering and someone’s making money off of it.” That’s pretty insensitive and absurd, I think. Also, anyone with a proper understanding of our health care system would know that it’s highly implausible that a cure for cancer would be kept under wraps – cancer costs the government millions of dollars every year. Third, anyone with a proper understanding of cancer would know that’s ridiculous. There are HUNDREDS of cancers. Which cancer do they have a cure for? All of them or just a few? Breast cancer? Lymphoma? And which subtype of these? Non-Hodgkin’s? There are about 50 kinds of that one.
An alternative: There is no alternative for this one. Just don’t say that. It’s ignorant.

6. Me: “I can’t remember, my memory’s kind of bad because of chemo.”
Friend: “Well at least you have an excuse, my memory’s always bad, probably worse than yours!”

I paraphrased here, but I heard similar things. The intentions behind this one are really very good; it’s supposed to be a reassurance that maybe I’m not doing so bad. However, that’s not how it sounds. What it sounds like is very self-centred and attention-seeking. There are not many circumstances where it’s okay to compare or equate your situation with that of a cancer patient in the middle of treatment. Comparing cancer to first world problems is never a good idea. But if perchance there is a situation that you’ve experienced that allows you to empathize, there are better ways to express it than the above. The “at least you…” responses never quite ends well.
An alternative response: “Yikes. I understand somewhat, my memory isn’t the greatest either.”

7. Be positive!/Negative thoughts become your body!
Oh no, don’t get depressed, your cancer will get worse!! Ugh. By that logic, psychiatrists would be prescribing chemo together with anti-depressants. The whole “don’t be negative, you’ll make it worse” schtick gets old. I’m a naturally upbeat and positive person, and that adage just made me feel guilty whenever I had a bad day, or whenever something about the whole cancer situation actually had me feeling down. I felt bad sharing those moments, even though I knew they were a perfectly natural part of the process. Positive thinking is great and I’m sure it does help, but it’s not a cure for cancer.
An alternative: It’s okay to call us out if we’re being completely unreasonable; even cancer patients need to be grounded once in a while. But sometimes we just have to let these things out. So let it be.

8. Just look at Sheryl Crow – Melissa Etheridge – Michael C. Hall etc.
Comparing me to famous cancer-stricken celebrities didn’t really make me feel better. Comparing me to anyone, for that matter, didn’t make me feel better. For one, not one of them had NHL. The only NHL patient recently was the guy from Spartacus, Andy Whitfield…who DIED. Nobody brought him up. Secondly – we’re not the same person. Just because Scully got cancer, was cured and still had a baby with Mulder all without losing her spunky red hair, does not mean that I’ll be fine later on.
Alternative: “When XYZ had cancer, she lost her taste like you did; she said this thing helped.”
Don’t compare anyone with cancer to someone else with cancer unless you’re sharing something useful.

9. Well, you did cough a lot as a child.
This one made me laugh for days. It’s simple – if you’re not a doctor or a health care worker in any respect, don’t offer a diagnosis. You will be wrong. And for the record, I was one of the healthiest children known to man – I didn’t cough at all. I never even got chicken pox!
An alternative: Again, there is none. Just don’t! Resist the urge!

10. You’re not going to die./You’ll be fine.
You don’t know that. No one wants that to be true, but the truth is that cancer kills, and denying that won’t make it any less true. The possibility that I can/could die from cancer is an ever-present reality for me, and there’s no reassurance from anyone that would make it go away.
An alternative: I really hope that you’ll be okay.

Anyway, that’s the list I could think of. I don’t expect that all of them will apply to other patients, but hopefully someone can take something from my experience.


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