Things not to say to someone dealing with cancer

Lots of emotions here; this pic was taken three days after my second lumpectomy.

Most of us have the best intent when someone in our orbit is facing something painful. That doesn’t mean we are always great at how we respond. I can think of many times myself when I put my foot in my mouth in spectacularly awful – like Bridget Jones’s Diary bad – fashion.

In the moment, there’s no coming back from that. You can apologize but you still feel awful and you know your friend is probably thinking some, perhaps more colorful version, of “What the what?!”

The best we can do is learn from it and try to speak truth, love and support into the lives of our loved ones, especially when the chips are down.

I will also say that in choosing to a publish a blog on this topic, I also feel that I owe it to anyone who reads this to have a sister post focused on things you can say that are helpful. Balance every example of what not to do with what’s right. Right? Here are 11 ways you can show support to a friend affected by cancer.

For now, here are a few please don’t phrases/attitudes when interacting with someone dealing with cancer (whether newly diagnosed, in active treatment, in recovery or in long-term survivorship):

It’s just DCIS/Stage 1/early. It sounds like it’s not a big deal at all – just one little surgery and then you’re done right?

Wrong. Oh so very wrong. Someone said this to me after the biopsy results confirmed ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). It’s also considered Stage 0, which means the tumor cells have not broken outside of the cell wall. But to say any version of this is to minimize the uncertainty and fear that the person facing the diagnosis is feeling. I know she meant well, as in ‘No big deal sis! This is a blip on the radar and you’ll be good as new in no time,” but her words rocked me back on my heels a bit. It stung and I didn’t feel comfortable keeping her in my inner circle as treatment got frighteningly real.

What was your Oncotype score?

As open as I have been and continue to be about my experience, certain aspects will remain private. That is my choice, and I won’t apologize for it. This question is the equivalent of bragging about how your kid is in all the Gifted and Talented classes and asking for all the intimate details of why their kid isn’t.

Cancer and cancer treatment is extremely individualized, and thank God for that. Instead of the blunt instrument approach that once dictated cancer care, there are now ever-more targeted therapies, increasing quality of life and also long-term survival rates. Someone’s specific test results are none of your business. Never confuse being supportive with being nosy, or even worse, playing the comparison game.

Let me know if you need anything.

Again, the intent here is so genuine. But when you say or text this, what you are effectively telling the person who’s world has just been turned upside down is that they have one more thing to juggle with everything else. That they need to make sure you feel like you are being a good friend and that they need to give you some kind of purpose in the midst of their healthcare crisis. It makes their struggle about you.

Don’t create an extra task for them by asking them to tell you what they need. There are so many beautifully thoughtful and practical ways to serve them, where you’re not looking to them or their caregivers for guidance. That’s a whole ‘nother (sorry not sorry – my Alabama is coming out with the ‘nother mention) blog topic – no one can really understand the stress load or burden (even when it’s a burden carried in love) that the caregiver bears.

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