When I was diagnosed with cancer in July, I hesitated to tell people that I had the Big C. I just didn’t want the pity looks people give others when they hear terrible news. Like they are suddenly taking stock of their own lives as if the diagnosis has made them look at their own mortality. I can get that. Really, I can. At BFF’s insistence, I decided to tell people about my diagnosis to get support. What floored me was not the pity looks I thought I would get (and I did get some) but sometimes it was the things that were said in response to hearing that I had cancer well meaning as they might have been. I decided to help all of you out there with the etiquette of what NOT to say when someone tells you that they have cancer (or any other horrible diagnosis) and what you should say.
- “My __________ (fill in with aunt, grandfather, sister, friend whatever pronoun you choose) was diagnosed with that type of cancer. He/She went through a horrible time and died. But, I am sure that your experience will be different.” Really? Is this supposed to comfort me? You just informed me, after I tell you that I JUST found out I have cancer, that someone you know DIED from this type of cancer. Well, gee. I feel better already about my diagnosis. In fact, I think I will skip down the street, twirling in a white cotton dress while releasing balloons in the joy of knowing that I might DIE. Yeah. Believe it or not, I did not hear this just once, but SEVERAL times from several people. I mean…hello…did you all go to a make me feel like shit about my diagnosis but in a nice way school? I know that it might have been a thought that popped into your head when I told you, but did you need to say it out loud? There is a reason we have filters, so use them.
- “But you are so young!” Yes, I am quite aware of my age. But are you aware that cancer does not care? Cancer hits people of all ages, even children. You don’t have to be old to get cancer. Also, this sentence is usually said in such a way that it implies I am going to die. Thanks for nailing that portion of the lid on my coffin. Why don’t you go join your friends from #1?
- “Aren’t you upset about not being able to have children anymore?” This one applies to my hysterectomy but it could be said about any cancer that might be affecting your appearance or lifestyle. Well, actually, since I had made the conscious choice to not have children, no I am not upset but thanks for bringing it up and making me realize I CANNOT have children anymore even if I wanted to. And if I was upset, thanks for rubbing salt in that wound. Do you go and ask the guy who got his leg shot off in Afghanistan if he is upset that he doesn’t have a leg or the woman who had a double mastectomy if she is upset about losing her ta-tas? So why would you ask me about my uterus and my ability to have children? This question was actually posed to me so much that I started my conversations with the fact that I wasn’t upset. Quit reminding me I cannot have children any more. I am aware. I saw the public service announcement and read the pamphlet.
- “What am I going to do without you?” Wow. Just wow. This really isn’t about you. And yes, this was said to me and NOT by someone like a spouse, siblings, parents or my BFF that would have had the right to say that. Let’s leave it at that. Because I think you all know this was not appropriate. And left me with my mouth hanging open like I was gathering flies.
- “You are pretty nonchalant about having cancer, aren’t you?” Hmmmmm…..how would you like me to act? Would you like me to lose my shit right here and now? You know I could but I refrained for a reason. This would leave us both in an uncomfortable position of me sobbing my brains out with mascara making me look like a raccoon and you standing there awkwardly not knowing how to comfort me but handing me a paper towel to wipe the snot bubble from my nose. Pretty sure neither of us wants that. I can’t really change the fact that I have cancer, so why shouldn’t I joke and laugh about my uterus being an inhospitable place except to cancer? I really don’t see the benefit of wallowing in self-pity and tears when I can share my pain through laughter and make you feel a little less awkward around me now that you think I am going to die.
Yes, I really did hear all of those things when I talked about being diagnosed with cancer and I am sure other cancer patients can relate. I know that the people who said them meant well and maybe did not know what else to say. So I am going to help those of you out who might be at a loss for words when a friend or family member says they have cancer. Here are a few things you can say instead.
- “I’m sorry.” I know this seems simple but sometimes that is all that is needed to be said because you know what? I am sorry I got cancer too. This could come with hug if the person is a huggy sort of person. If they seem to have their prickles out that day, then I recommend not hugging. Just saying you are sorry is good enough. And don’t try to act huggy if you are not….we can see through that.
- “What can I do for you?” Offering to help the person with meals, child care, rides to the doctors, whatever you can think of is often something that the person had not thought of with all the upheaval in their life. When I was getting ready to have surgery, one of my co-workers, without me asking set up a calender online with meals and housekeeping and whatever else she thought I might need and people could sign up to help out. This was one of the BEST things I have ever had done for me. I am not one to ask for help, but those meals really came in handy. I was able to stuff my gob with good homemade food. It was a blessing in disguise. And realize that the person themselves may not ask for help, just take the initiative and be the pushy bitch like my co-worker was and do it on your own. It will be appreciated. Especially things like cobbler and ice cream (you know who you are…we ate the crap out of that).
- “Well fuck. That sucks.” This was the BEST response I ever got and I need to thank my BFF for always knowing what to say because she is right. It does suck. It sucks big time. And it made me laugh and laughter is good for the soul. And believe it or not, my Bubby, Dad and another of my co-workers said it sucked too. It is probably the best thing to say besides I’m sorry. Because cancer sucks. Period.
Just remember, people have a hard enough time dealing with their own diagnosis and they do not need to deal with your junk on top of it. Don’t put me in my coffin before I am ready. Don’t try to be nice. Just be simple and straightforward. And honest (with a filter) is always best. Your friend or family member will appreciate it. The best advice I can give you is to listen. The person who got diagnosed might just need that…a listening ear, a hug, or they might need to become that awkward, bawling snot bubble producing person in front of you (that might have happened to me in front of BFF but I shall deny it till the day I am ready to die). Just awkwardly hand them that paper towel and then assure them that they can be the superhero you know they are capable of becoming.
Oh yeah. I didn’t die today. I did realize that people sometimes do not think before they speak or think they are being comforting when they are not. I am Fat Girl denying still I lost my shit with BFF and cried so hard I produced a snot bubble Running. The experiment continues…