There are a lot of articles about what not to say to cancer patients. For the most part I’ve heard everything I’ve come across. There are good explanations as to why not to say these things, and below is my hand at telling everyone what I actually hear when certain remarks are made.
Now this post may be a bit snarky and it comes on the heels of having some empty phrases and promises thrown my way. The truth is my very close friends and family can get away with saying things other people can’t. Because they are willing to connect to what’s going on. They are willing to go to this profound and sometimes dark place with me. The problem is when people pull words that sound like they belong to that profound place but either stay on the surface or even try to travel wholly uninvited to my inner world.
For those of you who don’t have Cancer, I’m sure finding the right words is tricky and uncomfortable. It’s tricky and uncomfortable for me to be going through this. And in some ways, that’s a better place to connect than trying to fix or heal or even allay your own fears about my or your mortality. I know you mean well and, for that, I thank you.
That said, this list may not speak for every Cancer patient out there, but this is what I hear when certain phrases come my way.
When you say: My Sister-in-law (or insert any other relation here) died of Cancer
What I hear: I’m better at word association games than human interaction. In fact, authentic human connection scares me a bit as does not having first hand understanding of profound situations.
When you say: I’m confident you’re going to beat this.
What I hear: I don’t know what to say but if I use a powerful word and sentiment, I know I’ll feel better, so you should too.
When you say: We’re going to get through this
NOTE: this is really ok coming from loved ones or people who mean it and are supportive. But recently I’ve heard it from a couple of people I just met.
What I hear when uttered by someone I just met: I like being a hero but chances are I will never call you again.
When you say: I know a guy who can totally cure you and will make some calls right away.
NOTE: generally uttered by the same people in the above camp who like to feel heroic in the moment.
What I hear: I really don’t have the connections I’m talking about and, if I do, I don’t have much time to work my way towards them, although talking to you now really makes me want to want to.
When you say: God has a plan
What I hear: I’m super good at giving people exactly what I need in times of stress. And that’s enough for me. Plus I’m not totally sorry that this wasn’t God’s plan for me.
When you say: You should stop eating meat and dairy. They cause cancer.
What I hear: I take all of my medical advice from Buzzfeed and Facebook. Oh, and I’m really good at getting facts from headlines.
or I’m a staunch believer in holistic medicine but I also believe everyone’s bodies are exactly the same.
When you say: My Sister-in-law (or insert relation here) had the exact same thing and totally beat it. I’ll find out what she did and let you know.
What I hear: I tend to jump to conclusions about things with very little information. I’m also fairly good at over-promising and under-delivering. If you hound me a lot, I may send you a few links to outdated articles that are probably not relevant.
When you say: How are you doing????
NOTE: when this is genuine from someone who cares, this is a great question. But my detector is pretty sensitive and, when said with that certain anxiety, it often really means “What’s your prognosis?”
What I hear: I’m both fascinated and afraid of death. Mine and yours. So fascinated that this is the overriding emotion here. In fact, you have sort of disappeared. Now how long do you have?
When you say: Are you OK????
NOTE: similar to the above person. Again, when asked without that anxiety, totally fine. But I know the difference.
What I hear: I’m not really going to listen to the ins and outs of your tests and progress but I’m doing my part here to support you because you obviously need it.
When you say: I would never do Chemo. What I would do is…
What I hear: White noise