Guest blog: What NOT to say to a cancer patient
This is a great blog post from the brilliant Laura giving friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances some excellent advice on what NOT to say to someone with breast cancer.
“So you get a free boob job?…”
Until you have heard the words “you’ve got cancer” you have NO IDEA how it feels. It’s only after you go through the experience that you understand what you need people to say, and how you need them to react. And people will disappoint you, they will hurt your feelings without intending to do so.
It’s not that they don’t want to help, or offer sympathy or try and comfort you, but it’s not easy to find the right thing to say. Cancer scares people, it’s the elephant in the room, it makes people uncomfortable that they don’t know what to say, which inevitably means they end up saying the wrong thing.
So after hearing it all, I thought it might be useful to share what to maybe NOT say, and I apologise in advance if this comes off a little bit “ranty” please don’t take it personally if you yourself have uttered these words, you weren’t to know. And before all of this, I probably would have said the wrong thing as well.
“Well you don’t look sick, you look great”
I know this is intended as a compliment… but every time someone said it to me, it made me feel really uncomfortable. It’s almost like they are saying “are you sure cancer is as bad as it sounds, because you don’t look too rough” it’s worth remembering that you can feel awful, even if you look healthy. I felt I had to point out that wearing my make up and a wig, yes, I probably look ok. For a stranger who walked past me in the street, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell I was battling cancer. But for me, I looked ill, and without all the warpaint, I actually looked pretty shocking. Bald, bloated from steroids, grey skin and no eyelashes is not a good look on ANYONE.
“You’re one of the lucky ones”
This one really annoyed me. NO ONE who gets cancer is bloody LUCKY. Yes I was diagnosed early enough to treat my cancer, and I know in the grand scheme of things, there will be many others who are worse off than you, people who are losing or have lost their own battles, but while we might still be alive, we most certainly aren’t lucky.
“It’s just hair”
If it is “just hair” they why do we, as women, spend hundreds… no, thousands of pounds over the years on making it look as fantastic as it can possibly be. Extensions, colours, cuts, special shampoos, treatments, straighteners, curlers, the list goes on. Your hair is one of the first things people notice about you, and is part of a persons identity, so try not to belittle the loss of it by saying “oh but it’s only hair” because it really isn’t.
“At least you get new boobs!”
I know you’re trying to put a positive spin on the situation, but just no. I would rather have my old set back, just as they were before (minus cancerous tumours, obviously), thank you very much. Having a “boob job”, where they put an implant behind your breast tissue, is not the same as having to have your entire breast, including your nipple, skin and all breast tissue surgically removed to treat cancer, and then a reconstruction where they have to rebuild that breast from scratch using chunks of tissue and skin from other parts of your body. As a side note…. try and avoid complaining about your own boobs to someone who has just lost theirs, doesn’t matter how much like spaniels ears you think they look, if you have two healthy boobs with nipples, you’re not doing too badly. I would give ANYTHING to have my old, imperfect boobs back.
“Have you tried…?”
Juicing, jogging, yoga, meditation, fruit cleanses, turmeric, cutting out sugar, XYZ vitamins, cutting out pork, going vegan, alkaline diets, alternative therapies… etc etc. Don’t offer unsolicited advice, particularly diet tips, if we want your help we will ask. Also, for those of us who were already very healthy in all of the above before getting diagnosed, it kind of feels like you’re saying “is it your fault because you refuse to cut out bacon?” or basically “you clearly weren’t trying hard enough to not get cancer”
“Oh I’m so sorry, I lost my *** to breast cancer”
“If anyone can beat this, you can”
Because people who die of cancer obviously just weren’t trying hard enough?
“Why don’t you start a new hobby while you’re off work?”
Hmm… well I’m off work because cancer treatment is my new full time job… when is it you think I should I start learning Italian? When my head is hanging in the toilet bowl as the post chemo nausea hits? When my mouth ulcers are so bad I can hardly move my lips? Or when I’m struggling to remember how to string a sentence together in English because the chemo brain fog is so bad?
“Don’t worry, you will be fine”
I personally didn’t mind this one too much, but I think you might be on sketchy ground and I know others don’t like it…. You don’t know we will be fine, neither do we. A cancer diagnosis brings with it lots of unpleasant surprises, being hopeful and optimistic is great but don’t be too flippant about it.
There is nothing like the big C to show you who your real friends are, and there have definitely been some people that have surprised me. It’s hard to know what to say, but say SOMETHING rather than nothing, because the silence can be deafening, and left too long, it can ruin your friendship. My advice would be, don’t focus on the cancer. They are still the person you love so focus on that, and treat them normally. It’s about them, not about you, or how uncomfortable you feel with the situation.
So, now I’ve got that off my chest… what SHOULD you say?!
Simply letting us know you care with a “I don’t know what to say but I love you” or showing support with a “I’ll always be here for you, we will get through this together” are the best thing you can do.
My friends were amazing telling me “you’ve got this” and “we’re so proud of you” and making me feel so supported every step of the way. They sent me care packages after surgery, through chemotherapy and radiotherapy which made me feel so special and cared for.
Asking us “How are you really doing” and being prepared for the answer to possibly make you feel a little bit uncomfortable when you realise just how crappy we are feeling!
Offer specific help – preparing meals, take them for lunch, meet for a walk, lifts to and from the hospital, anything that will make their life easier. A simple “please let me know if I can do anything to help” is lovely but you can pretty much guarantee we will never want to put you out by saying “actually yes, would you mind filling my freezer with meals, pick up Frank from nursery on Thursday and run me up to my appointment on Friday” but offering to do specific things will make us feel less guilty about accepting the help.
Moral of the story – if you don’t have anything positive to say, perhaps don’t say a lot? Just pick up the phone and say “I have no idea what to say to you, but I’m here” and we will love you forever.
For more advice, have a look at the Ticking Off Breast Cancer section for Friends and Family.