The most uplifting messages from family, friends and even total strangers have gotten me through some really dark times. Sometimes, or a lot of the times, when you are going through something traumatic (like a battle with cancer), encouraging words or inspirational stories give you the nudge to keep going and the affirmation that everything is going to be ok. And then on the flip side, you get those random, off the wall, unwanted comments and suggestions that leave you overwhelmed and depressed or wondering if your days are numbered. It seems that even people with the best intentions sometimes say the worst things possible when a friend or family member faces a cancer diagnosis. I have heard everything under the sun when it comes to my diagnosis. I used to be so sensitive to peoples’ reactions but over the years as I have become stronger and more secure in the position that I am in, the awkward comments are almost amusing. But I’m here to tell you they are not so amusing to those who are newly diagnosed, who are are looking for answers and hope.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say to someone with cancer. I understand that people don’t mean to be insensitive. The news just scares them and they don’t know the right thing to say. As floored as I have been by some of the reactions I have gotten, I often think had I not been in my shoes, I probably wouldn’t know what to say to someone either. So with all of my acquired experience over the past almost 6 years of dealing with cancer, here are some tips highlighting what NOT to say to someone with cancer:
Refrain from mentioning people who have died from cancer… Please
The fact that you know may someone who has passed away from cancer is unfortunate and any feelings you may have about your loss are totally valid. And not to discredit the significance of the person passing or your feelings, but the absolute LAST thing someone who is fighting cancer wants to hear is that you know someone who died of cancer. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said something along the lines of, “Oh wow, you have breast cancer?…My aunt just died from breast cancer last year.” It’s crazy to me that anyone would think this is in any way encouraging. Some things are better left unsaid and this is definitely one of them. Now on the other hand, if you know a person or have a story to share about someone who has beat cancer, by all means, please do tell!
“How did you get it?”
Seriously?! If I knew the answer to this question I would probably own a Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, people have asked me this, countless times. I don’t know. My doctors don’t know. Next…
“Everything Happens for a Reason”
This is generally not a great response when someone is diagnosed with cancer. People may feel this way after they go through it, but let them come to their own conclusions. This may leave someone questioning themselves in despair. Why me? What did I possibly do to to deserve this? What could this reason possibly be? Like I mentioned, most people might figure out the reason and/or purpose behind their cancer later on down the line through their own experiences and on their own timeframe. But hearing this from someone who isn’t going through what you are going through when you are newly diagnosed isn’t helpful…at all.
“It’s Only Hair”
In the big picture, yes…It’s only hair. But the person who has just lost all of their hair or who is about to lose all of their hair certainly doesn’t feel like it’s only hair. Believe me! It’s not just about losing you hair, it’s about appearing to be sick. A bald head or thinning hair is a daily reminder of the battle you are up against. Every time you look in the mirror, you are reminded that you have cancer. All of the attention your baldness attracts, is a reminder that you have cancer. And most women view hair as a link to femininity, and losing it can be very hard to bear, so it’s best not to make a comment related to hair at all.
Instead maybe offer to treat this person to a day of pampering. Take them to get their makeup done or do something special to remind them of how beautiful they are with or without hair.
Respect treatment choices and decisions, without being judgmental
When cancer patients are first diagnosed, some family members tend to feel like they need to take control of the situation. That includes trying to make decisions when it comes to what doctor or facility they need to go to and what treatments might be best. Although the intentions are in the right place and the common goal is to get the person well ASAP, this is one area where the cancer patient really needs to call the shots. No matter what treatment lies ahead for your loved one or friend, keep in mind she ultimately knows the best path for herself.
Speaking from my own personal experience, when I was first diagnosed, all of the opinions from family members and friends were so overwhelming… it was just as overwhelming as receiving my diagnosis. Opinions were very forced and fear based. I wanted to run away.. and I did. I went to the East Coast for a couple of months and literally shut the noise out and prayed and prayed so that I could make the decision that resonated with my spirit and felt right for me. I am in no way advocating running away but that’s what I did because I was drowning in others’ opinions. With cancer, there is no “silver bullet” and everyone thinks they have the answer, but the answer truly resides in the individual and it is up to them to choose the path that is best for them.
“I can’t stop crying. I am so worried about you.”
You have every right to cry, be upset and worried…naturally. But often the person with cancer is trying to hold it together for those around them. A lot of the times, the cancer patient finds themselves consoling others and this is an additional burden to bear. And first and foremost, they need to take care of themselves at this time.
Try to process your own feelings beforehand. Learning that a friend or loved one has cancer is difficult news to hear. Take time to acknowledge and cope with your own emotions about the diagnosis before approaching them. This way you can keep the focus on them.
“Are You Going to Die?”
It’s crazy that I have to even type these words, but yes, I have been asked this question, and it stung every time. I don’t think the average person would ask such a thing but there are those special individuals who obviously have no filter and speak their minds. If you don’t know me, I am pretty quick witted so when I was first asked this question I replied with, “Of course I’m going to die. But more than likely I will outlive you.” I transferred those uneasy feelings and awkward vibes right on back. There’s really no further explanation needed for this unwarranted question… I’m certain you see why this would be hurtful to someone with cancer.
Whatever you do, don’t Say: Nothing
A lot of people are afraid and don’t know what to say, but saying nothing is the worst thing you can do, in my opinion. Cancer is scary for everyone involved but turning your back on someone because of your own fears is very hurtful, and selfish. I had a best friend of 17 years disappear as soon as I got sick and 6 years later we still haven’t spoken. Maybe she thought I was going to die and wanted to disconnect? Maybe she didn’t know how to handle all of her emotions? Maybe it was just too much and too overwhelming for her to bear? I may never know the answer to why she she abandoned me during this time. Simply conveying that she didn’t know how to react or what to do would have been better than disappearing all together.
Surprisingly, this is more common that I thought as other women with cancer have shared with me that they too have lost close friends. If you don’t know what to say, then simply say that. We get it. Ask how you can help. Be there when we need it. That’s what relationships are about anyway, cancer or no cancer.
It can be really difficult to find the right words to comfort and support someone, and you shouldn’t have to feel like you have to walk on egg shells either. I’m pretty certain I said the “wrong” thing to someone with cancer prior to my own experiences. It’s a learning process and unfortunately we all know someone with cancer. This list was inspired by my own personal experiences and my intent is not to provoke guilt or cast blame, but rather to unite us all in the realization that to talk about cancer is first to fail — then, to “fail better” the next time.