There are definitely wrong things to say to people with cancer. Take, for example, the comment I received as a chemo patient from a stranger who insisted that I watch a YouTube video on her phone. She assured me that it was of a doctor (mmm-hm) with proof (uh-huh) that curing breast cancer was as easy as eating a daily concoction of molasses and baking soda – a real “miracle treatment!”
And by the way, did I know that chemotherapy was poisoning my body?
Not helpful, lady. Not even a little bit.
This obnoxious encounter certainly deserved a “What was she thinking!?” eye-roll and not much else. But since my diagnosis, I’d had more than my fair share of awkward situations where loved ones and acquaintances alike mumbled through an array of well-meaning platitudes in an effort to say something, anything, to The Girl With Cancer Who Was Crying! (I cried a lot – in the doctor’s office, the dressing room at Target, the supply room at work…)
And really, I get it. It’s a normal, human, empathetic reaction to want to make things better for the person in front of you who is struggling at that moment. I can’t blame you for resorting to one of the Things You Think You’re Supposed To Say To A Sick Person. But unfortunately, these well-intentioned sentiments can often do more harm than good. Take, for example, an obvious fav in the world of cancer consolation — everything happens for a reason. Throwing this out there to fill an uncomfortable expanse of silence can seem like a great idea. After all, it’s the perfect blend of comfort and compassion, right?
Wellllll…. maybe for you. But what about me?
The way I see it, my cancer diagnosis has likely forced you to confront the fact that everyone dies (sorry about that, by the way), and suddenly death and disease are not merely distant and unpleasant understandings of the world, they are tangible realities. Anyone, anyone could be next! Unless… everything happens for a reason! Aha!
Perhaps attempting to explain away the absurd randomness of cancer by finding some reason for it is the only way you know how to avoid an impending existential crisis. Ok, fair enough. But if I am truly going take this statement to heart and get on board with the belief there’s a reason for this crap, now I’m stuck trying to figure out what it is! Where did I go wrong? What should I have done differently? Was it too many bags of Cheetos? Snickers bars? Processed cheese? My birth-control? Always taking the elevator, and never the stairs? How could this have happened? Why am I being punished? And the ever-elusive… WTF?
Ok, so perhaps it could be argued that I didn’t actually deserve the diagnosis; just that it’s all part of the plan for me. But what plan would that be, exactly? The plan to shove me into a miserable, menopausal, bald and brow-less, chemo-brained existence? The plan to scare me shitless and take away any chance I ever had of imagining a future without an all-encompassing fear that I might not make it there? THAT plan?
Look at cancer, survivors are told, as an opportunity to re-evaluate our lives! Sure, cancer isn’t ideal, but maybe it gives us a chance to make lemonade out of lemons. Um, ok, but the problem is that cancer isn’t a lemon, it’s cancer. Plus, I’m too busy trying not to vomit on your shoes at the moment to figure out how to juice cancer, add some sugar to it, and turn it into a delightfully refreshing drink.
Forgive me for the sarcasm but telling me to look at cancer as some sort of an opportunity is crap. The last thing we need to hear when we feel like shit is that we should look for the silver lining. What good is a silver lining if you’re dead?
It’s like people think we have been enveloped by some magical cancer chrysalis, from which we will emerge (miracle of miracles!) as beautiful butterflies. How gracious of cancer to provide us with an opportunity to completely reinvent ourselves! Not. The mind-numbing, day-to-day reality of living with cancer is mostly just about trying to make life happen right now, never mind trying to put effort into making each day count. We’ve got no energy or capacity to consider the epiphany that this experience is supposed to bring about for us.
And, anyway, what if we liked our boring, predictable, caterpillar selves? What if our caterpillar lives were just fine?
Call me Captain Obvious, but I feel like this needs to be said: The reality is that, most of the time, cancer really does just happen. It’s the accumulation of environmental carcinogens, a random mutation in cell DNA, a malfunctioning gene. It’s any of these things, or it’s all of them. Cancer just happens. It happens for no reason other than the fact that we are all humans with imperfect bodies, and sometimes our cells develop DNA mutations, and sometimes these mutations lead to malignancy. I feel like this whole life-changing, lemon-squeezing, cancer-for-a-reason business is just one big, fat, unacceptable excuse for cancer.
We survivors don’t need excuses, we need support.
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Look at it this way: it’s hard enough for us to reach out and share our fears with you, but if your response is that we’ll never get more than we can handle, that this is God’s plan, or that at least it’s only our boobs, we’re left with no other choice but to face all of the very real and very scary possibilities alone. And there is nothing more isolating than being forced to carry the burden of courageousness or heroism just so that someone else can feel better about what we’re going through.
By now you might be thinking, so what am I supposed to do? Good question! Responding to someone’s news of a cancer diagnosis is not an easy task, and it’s true that sometimes life hands us moments when there doesn’t really seem to be anything that could be said. In these situations, it can feel like there’s NO right thing to say. Luckily, when it comes to genuine encouragement and support, words are only part of the equation. We’re not expecting you to have all the answers, we’re just looking for the space and the permission to be real. Beginning with something like “I don’t know what to say, but I see your struggle and I love you,” can be a really good start. The effort to meet us where we are shows us that you won’t shy away from some tough stuff. And cancer…its tough stuff.
I guess it’s true that cancer changes people. Cancer survivors overcome incredible odds all the time. We find renewed strength in our relationships, we reorganize our priorities, we find new passions, we decide to run half-marathons… but none of these outcomes really explains the reason we got cancer in the first place. We can and do find ways to make meaning from our experiences, but meaning-making from cancer and making excuses for cancer are two very different things. Cancer isn’t some gift or punishment, and it certainly isn’t a battle that can be won with sheer perseverance or some crazy baking soda concoction.
Cancer is hard, and frightening, and lonely. If words fail you, then feel free to just take a seat next to me. I might want to talk, I might not. Either way, it’s just really nice to know you’re there. Oh, and I guess you could bring some lemonade. Citrus is supposed to be great for that disgusting metallic taste from chemo…
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