Think before you speak…
You would be surprised how many messages I’ve received since starting my blog from people needing advice on what to say to a friend or relative that has just been diagnosed. If someone you know and love has been recently been told they have cancer, I’m sure you will be feeling like you have absolutely no idea what to say to them… and unless you yourself have heard the words “you’ve got cancer” you have NO IDEA how they are feeling.
It’s not easy to find the right thing to say… hell, I would have had no clue if the roles were reversed. I would almost certainly have said the wrong thing, without realising how much it can really hurt to hear it. It’s only after you go through the experience that you know how it feels, and how you need other people to react. It’s not that people don’t want to offer their help or sympathy, it’s that cancer scares them. They don’t know what to say or what to do, and they quite often end up saying the wrong thing.
I think I’ve heard it all, some from well meaning friends, others perhaps not so much… my personal favourite from an acquaintance when they heard I was going to have to have chemo was “oh my god, I just don’t know what I’ll do if you lose your hair” Errrrm. Ok. Glad YOU’RE having trouble coming to terms with it.
So after hearing it all, I thought it might be useful to share what to maybe NOT say, and I apologise in advance if this comes off a little bit “ranty”
“Well you don’t look sick, you look great”
I know this is intended as a compliment… but every time someone said it to me, it made me feel really uncomfortable. It’s almost like they are saying “are you sure cancer is as bad as it sounds, because you don’t look too rough” it’s worth remembering that you can feel awful, even if you look healthy.
I felt I had to point out that wearing my make up and a wig, yes, I probably look ok. For a stranger who walked past me in the street, you wouldn’t be able to tell I was battling cancer. But for me, I looked ill, and without all the warpaint, I actually looked pretty shocking. Bald, bloated from steroids, grey skin and no eyelashes is not a good look on ANYONE.
“You’re one of the lucky ones”
This one really pissed me off. Sorry to say it but it did. NO ONE who gets cancer is bloody LUCKY.
I know in the grand scheme of things, there will be many others who are worse off than you, people who are fighting and losing their own battles, but while we might still be alive, we most certainly aren’t lucky.
“It’s just hair”
If it is “just hair” they why do we, as women, spend hundreds… no, thousands of pounds over the years on making it look as fantastic as it can possibly be. Extensions, colours, cuts, special shampoos, treatments, straighteners, curlers, the list goes on. Your hair is one of the first things people notice about you, and is part of a persons identity so try not to belittle the loss of it by saying “oh but it’s only hair”
“Ohh you get a free boob job, at least you get new boobs!”
I know you’re trying to put a positive spin on the situation, but nope. Just nope. I would rather have my old set back, just as they were before, thank you very much. In Samanthas words (SATC) “I didn’t want to lose my breasts… they were fabulous”
Also, having a boob job, where they put an implant behind your breast tissue, is not the same as having to have your entire breast tissue surgically removed to treat cancer, and then a reconstruction where they have to rebuild that breast from scratch using chunks of tissue and skin from other parts of your body.
As a side note…. Try and avoid complaining about your own boobs to someone who has just lost theirs, I would give ANYTHING to have my old, slightly sagging, imperfect boobs back.
“Have you tried…?”
Juicing, jogging, yoga, meditation, fruit cleanses, turmeric, cutting out sugar, XYZ vitamins, cutting out pork, going vegan, alkaline diets, alternative therapies… etc etc.
Don’t offer unsolicited advice, particularly diet tips, if we want your help we will ask. Also, for those of us who were already very healthy in all of the above before getting diagnosed, it kind of feels like you’re saying “is it your fault because you didn’t practice yoga everyday?” or “you clearly weren’t trying hard enough to not get cancer”
“Oh I’m so sorry, I lost my *** to breast cancer”
“Why don’t you start a new hobby while you’re off work?”
This one definitely made me laugh, and actually my husband even suggested taking up something new while I was off! Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m not on holiday. I’m off work because cancer treatment is my new full time job… when is it you think I should I start learning Italian?!
“Don’t worry, you will be fine”
I personally didn’t mind this one too much, but I think you might be on sketchy ground and I know others don’t like it…. You don’t know we will be fine, neither do we. A cancer diagnosis brings with it lots of unpleasant surprises, being hopeful and optimistic is great but don’t be too flippant about it.
There is nothing like the big C to show you who your real friends are, and most of mine have been INCREDIBLE. Honestly, I can’t say enough how amazing they have been and how lucky I am, but there have definitely been some people that have surprised me. It’s hard to know what to say, but say SOMETHING rather than nothing, because the silence can be deafening and left too long, it can ruin your friendship. My advice would be, don’t focus on the cancer. They are still the person you love so focus on that, and the fact it’s about them, not about you, or how uncomfortable you feel with the situation
So, now I’ve got that off my chest… what SHOULD you say?!
Simply letting us know you care with a “I don’t know what to say but I love you” or showing support with a “I’ll always be here for you, we will get through this together” are the best thing you can do.
My friends were amazing telling me “you’ve got this” and “we’re so proud of you” and making me feel so supported every step of the way. They sent me care packages after surgery, through chemotherapy and radiotherapy which made me feel so special and cared for.
Asking us “How are you really doing” and being prepared for the answer to possibly make you feel a little bit uncomfortable when you realise just how crappy we are feeling!
Offer specific help - preparing meals, take them for lunch, meet for a walk, lifts to and from the hospital, anything that will make their life easier. A simple “please let me know if I can do anything to help” is lovely but you can pretty much guarantee we will never want to put you out by saying “actually yes, would you mind filling my freezer with meals, pick up Frank from nursery on Thursday, and run me up to my appointment on Friday” but offering to do specific things will make us feel less guilty about accepting the help.
Moral of the story - if you don’t have anything positive to say, perhaps don’t say a lot? Just pick up the phone and say “I have no idea what to say to you, but I’m here” and we will love you forever.
Until next time, check your boobs