Tuesday, 13 September 2011

5 Things Not To Say To A Cancer Patient...

I've been meaning to write this post for ages, but somehow I just can't seem to get it right. Each time I try to write a sentence, I find myself writing with rage rather than reason. I want to make this post sound humorous but all I seem to do is come across as harsh. At worst, I sound like I'm whining. But it's hard to deny my true emotions. Since I keep having a recurring dream which involves messy toilets (you really don't want to know any more than this, trust me), I'm assuming that somebody somewhere is telling me that I need to release. So let me begin.

Today let us talk about friendships, or in the words of the cancer books and counsellors, 'support'.

Cancer leaflets adore this word. We cancer patients are told that it's an essential part of our recovery like water is to a plant. Before I had this disease, the only time the word ever crossed my mind was when I was in the lingerie department of M & S and I'd stumble into what we would affectionately call 'the granny zone'. Suddenly I'd be face to face with flesh-coloured (well, not exactly the colour of my flesh, but anyway...) support tights, knickers and panty girdles. My face would contort with a look of disdain and I'd head for the nearest aisle of balcony bras and thongs. But now that I can count a mastectomy and a sternectomy as part of my body's ever changing landscape, I'm no longer in the market for uber-sexy underwear. I've decided that more is now infinitely better than less and I may well be making a swift visit to that 'granny zone' sooner than I had originally expected, But if nothing else, my first experience with the aforementioned word did its best to tell me that support is a thing that should lift you up rather than bring you down.

So, now that I'm back in Cancerland, I've been impressed this time round by how much support I've received from family, friends, aquaintances and work colleagues. But I've also been disappointed by the reactions of a chosen few who have pretty much run for the hills when they heard about my diagnosis. Now I know that this happens a lot. There are many fine articles on the net that describe the reasons why people shrink away from cancer patients. The underlying reason seems to be one thing only; Fear. And we all know that fear can make people act in very strange ways. So, instead of me using this blog to bitch about a few very flaky so-called 'friends' who disappeared before I could even say 'second opinion', I want to focus on some of the phrases that I've heard from time to time by friend and foe, followed by the responses that I wished I'd given at the time of delivery...

'It Could Happen To Me' 
This was a popular one. I'm sure the utterer's intentions were genuine. But often this statement would be followed by such a look of sheer terror that I would find myself trying to reassure person seated in front of me that actually, it probably wouldn't happen to them. Women who get diagnosed with breast cancer in their thirties and forties are uncommon. But then, I realised that I was pretty much saying , 'don't worry, I was a freak. It won't happen to you because well, you're not me. Luckily.' And okay, it's kind of true, who'd want to swop places with a woman now trying to come to terms with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis ?  But Jeez, people please. If I can't take centre stage and demand diva-style attention when I've been afflicted with a serious, life-threatening illness, then when else can I get the chance to hog the limelight ??  "This conversation was supposed to be about me and suddenly I'm the one reassuring you ?  Narcississm alert !! Get the hell off my sympathy stage ! It might not happen to you. I really hope that it doesn't. But then again it might, and I'm really in no fit emotional state right now to reassure you. Next !"

'Cancer in the bones ? It sounds terrifying !!'
"Really ? You don't say ? I thought it sounded quite reasonable to me... "
You know, I hate having to resort to sarcastic replies to inane comments but really, is there any point in stating the bleeding-obvious ?? Of course it's terrifying but I'm not sure whether anyone with cancer needs reminding of such a thing. We know the whole cancer experience sounds like one scary, fucking (sorry about the expletives folks but there's a whole lot of latent anger coming out in this post) rollercoaster ride that we'd rather not have to take. But if you can't think of anything else to say, well - tell me this. Tell me that you feel as gobsmacked as I do. Just don't make me feel worse than I already do.

'Don't worry, you'll get through this'
"Maybe. But will I still be standing at the end of it all or lying stiff with rigor mortis inside a coffin ? You mean you don't know ? Neither do I and neither do the doctors. I haven't got a common cold, I've got one of the world's most feared diseases. So stop presuming !"
I'm sorry. Here I go again sounding all harsh and horrible when a well-meaning comment like this is supposed to cheer me up. "Next time, how about adding a 'I hope' in between the middle of the phrase. See ? Now, doesn't that sound more honest and heartfelt ?"

'You've got to be positive'
Has anyone got a sledgehammer that I could use to hack into the set of voodoo dolls that I've made of all the people who have told me this ? Yes, positivity is a great thing but let's face it, when you've been diagnosed with a critical illness, the first thing you want to do is cry. Then scream. Then break up every piece of furniture within your house. Or you might go the other way and feel numb for months like I did. One thing I know's for sure... you certainly don't want to get out your clown outfit, dance a jig around the sofa and make plans on how you're going to keep yourself smiling. For people who can be wholesomely positive and remain so during the whole ordeal ? Lucky, lucky, lucky you. For the rest of us ? Go ahead and punch a few more walls, wallow in self-pity and afterwards curl yourself up into a screwed up mess on the floor. Or just go and make a voodoo doll.

'Cancer is no big deal these days, is it ?'
No reader, you are not reading a typo. Someone did actually once say this to me. And do you know what's even stranger ? I was so shocked by what she said that I kind of agreed with her ! I guess in my post-diagnosis state I thought maybe it was me making too much of my dilemma. Perhaps, compared to the starving in Kenya, cancer was no big deal. After all, I was still alive wasn't I ?  I wasn't being tortured in Kabul or stranded in the middle of a warzone in the middle east. But even if I looked composed from the outside, it sure wasn't what was going on inside my very vulnerable, chaotic emotional state of mind. Perhaps, after watching celebrity after celebrity skipping out of their cancer clinics wearing a smile that says 'all clear', many people now believe that it doesn't take much these days to get to this point. But maybe the whole celebrity of cancer thing deserves it's very own post. Because there's just way too much to say on this subject...

So there you have it, I could go on with more and more silly and annoying statements but I really don't want to come across as even more bitter and twisted than I'm feeling right now. And I don't want it to rub off on you. But now that it's off my chest, I'm already feeling a whole lot better. So thank you for listening... and goodnight.


  1. You go Girl! .. Although I know you are angry I can read the sarcasm coming loud and clear with a smurk of satisfaction.. The devil you do the devil you don't.. If you smile six hours ago it does not mean you want to smile now.. People have to understand genuine support is needed not a false tilting head when you talk and as if we cannot see it is false.. I have also heard the comment but cancer is not a big deal now.. I then went into a sarcastic rant and most probably put the fear of god into this person.. When I explained in detail what cancer was.. Did I feel good yes because they asked for it by there whole demeanour.. Like I was going to except there reply.. Just like I heard the opposite of this via my eldest sister she had written me off before I had even started to have treatment.. At the end of the day some people are not worth our time or energy..

    I hope your treatment is going well.. Sending a hug and a friendship high five..xx

  2. Thanks Sarah, sending you a high five right back !! Cx

  3. I love what you wrote and I know that most people haven't a clue about what to say. Would you mind doing a post about what people could or should say? <3


  4. Hi Paula,
    I think that's a great idea and probably a lot more constructive than me ranting my way through a few paragraphs ! I think as cancer patients, we sometimes forget how difficult it is for those around us too. And of course, none of us are born knowing how to react in the face of adversity. Thanks for your comments, I'm already thinking about what to write for my next post ! Cx

  5. Brilliant, Superb and flipping well said! LOVE this post and your honesty! Your candidness about what people think is supportive communication again, makes me want to make my own voodoo doll! And yes, I know this because I'm in the midst of my third breast cancer diagnosis, double mastectomy, reconstruction, blah, blah. I wrote a similar post on my blog because I simply couldn't take their comments any more - http://cancercancerbo-bancer.blogspot.com/2011/12/cancer-conversation-dos-donts.html. But, I REALLY appreciate your posts. My fave one, "You've Got To Be Positive' (AKA, I can't handle this, so if you stay positive, I can too!). If I had a dollar for every person that has said this to me, it would help pay for my insurance premiums! But, just so glad I stumbled upon your blog. Great writing, wit and honesty. Keep it coming girl! Dee Anne