How to Talk to Someone Who Has Cancer: Take a Deep Breath and Pause

And now for the latest in instructional videos, Randall will discuss how to tawk (that’s Long Island for “talk” for you Indonesian readers who are confused) about cancer… just kidding. But seriously it would be great if he made a YouTube video about that topic. Really? You don’t know who Randall is? Come on.

This is likely a topic that will require several instalments (yeah that isn’t a typo the English spell it with one “l” I know so weird they do same thing with enrol I almost can’t take it). So here are some initial thoughts.

From the time I thought I might have cancer (last December) through my diagnosis (early January) and throughout treatment (February through July) and beyond (now), I have talked to an awful lot of people an awful lot about cancer. It has been unavoidable, and given my propensity for yakking, not surprising. Talking about cancer helps me cope — I am not one to shut things like that inside and hide myself away from the outside world. Putting it out there, and in doing so putting myself out there, has allowed me to feel some sense of control over the situation or at least some sense of power, if not control.

What has struck me time and time again is that people do not know how to talk about cancer. Even other people who have had cancer have said things to me that I really couldn’t quite believe. And it continues to happen all the time. Which is great in a way, because it serves as nifty inspiration for this here blog.

Now before I get into it I want you to know that if you feel that you are being singled out because you remember having said something similar or God forbid identical to what I describe below, you’ll have to get over it and promise not to be offended, horrified, guilty, angry, defensive, defiant or any other useless emotion. In fact I am probably not writing about you or something that you said, so don’t be “So Vain” as the song goes. And if you did happen to say some dumb thing to me or to another person who has or had cancer, don’t sweat it. Just hear me out.

Oh and here’s another disclaimer for good measure: I am well aware that all of the below is just my own personal take on the topic. I bet plenty of people would disagree with me. In fact I invite them or you to post comments disagreeing with me unless your big inspirational comment is that “most people mean well,” because that is the most useless bull shit comment ever and people throw it out there all the time. Of course most people mean well. That isn’t the point. I am not talking about evil here. None of the things said to me that have bothered me was intended to hurt me. I am 100% positive of that. I am just talking about what I don’t like and why.

Okay now I’m going to get into it.

One thing that really ticks me off is when people find out you have cancer and they tell you exactly what you are going to experience. I touched on this in the very beginning of my blog in an entry entitled Assaulted at the Global Festival: Things Not to Say to a Cancer Patient. If you haven’t read that and aren’t gonna I’ll recap: a lady who was herself a breast cancer survivor came up to me at a crowded event and outed me as a chemo patient, asked a lot of personal questions, proceeded to tell me I was going to feel like shit, physically and emotionally and indicated I wouldn’t feel normal for probably a year to eighteen months after my treatment ended.

This was not helpful. She could have been completely correct about all of those things (she wasn’t), but even if she had been, it was not her place to tell me how I was going to feel. Nor did I particularly want to be identified as a chemo patient at this event, for which I had put on a cute outfit and make-up so that I would feel as normal as possible, thank you very much.

Before that episode, shortly before I had even had my surgery, a friend and I did a quick clean-out of my closet. I took the nicest clothes to the consignment store after donating the serviceable yet not resalable things to charity. The owner of the store asked me what I’d like to do in the event that an item didn’t sell. “Would you like to donate it to cancer research?” She asked. I looked at her. “Why yes, I would,” I responded. “As a matter of fact, I would very much like to do that because I have just been diagnosed with breast cancer myself.” Big mistake. That’s what I get for being a blabbermouth. She launched into a mini speech about the treatments I would have even though she didn’t know anything about my particular case. When I made the second mistake of trying to correct her on some points she stood her ground and said she’d had a number of friends go through it and that indeed I would be having x, y and z treatment as she had outlined. That made me wish I had just dropped the clothes off and shut up.

The long and short of it is, a lot of people have cancer. Far too many. But their particular cancer and how they feel, both physically and emotionally, and the treatments they will have and how they will respond to these treatments varies widely. If there is one thing I have learned it’s that this is a highly individual experience. You talk to enough people going through “the same thing” to realise that they aren’t going through all the same things. And you need to be sensitive to that. One person might sail through chemo and another might end up in the hospital with a bad infection for two weeks during chemo. One person might experience a side effect that you never experience and vice versa. And you just cannot know. So you shouldn’t assume.

It didn’t bother me when people told me what they had experienced themselves. It just bothered me when they told me what I was going to experience in specific, sometimes preachy terms. It isn’t fair.

Another thing that thrills me is the whole “I have a friend, relative, etc. who had the same thing and they died.” I am a big girl and I know that cancer kills people. But it really bothers me when the first thing out of someone’s mouth when they find out I had cancer was that their aunt or cousin or buddy had cancer and died. It’s hard not to focus on the sad stories, especially in the beginning. Or at least it was for me. It’s pretty terrifying to find out that you have cancer, and that you are mortal is already going through your head a fair bit. So having the fragility of your life highlighted by stories about people who have lost theirs isn’t really what the doctor ordered.

I have stewed about these things and why people say them. And you know what? I think it’s because people want to find some common ground. They want to say something to you so that you know they are empathetic, responsive. They trot out the dead cousin or the “you’ll feel like shitola for a year” yadda yadda yadda because they want to relate personally to you and to your situation. Not doing so seems unfeeling or awkward. Not doing so isn’t human.

My final pet peeve (for tonight) is when people I don’t know well (or at all) ask “did they catch it in time?” Translation: Are you going to die any time soon? I suppose this isn’t fair of me. I mean, it seems to be a perfectly legitimate question when you find out someone has a life-threatening disease to discover just how threatening it is. But unless you know the person very well or they volunteer information, try to get the answers to these questions from someone else or learn to live with the uncertainty. I have had the luxury of saying to people “yes, we caught it fairly early.” But I know people who would have to say that actually the prognosis isn’t too great. And is it fair to put someone on the spot with this question about how long they think they might be around? Especially if you don’t even know them? I don’t think so. It made me feel as though I was being put into a box: check (a) for going to live and (b) for not going to make it. No. Nope. I don’t like it.

I think that people ask whether you’ve “caught it in time” because they desperately want the answer to be yes. Their subconscious is thinking, let it be yes so that I don’t have to feel so terrible. So I can be encouraging.

It is awkward and just plain painful to hear from someone that they have cancer or some other serious problem, be it a health problem or that their wife just left them (unless they are a schmuck and you think they deserve it — the wife leaving, not the cancer). It is. I often feel sorry for people when I tell them about the cancer. I feel guilty for making them experience the shock of it. It is such a blow to deal someone else. And when they are still reeling from the punch is it any wonder their response might be a bit flailing? Of course not.

What I think would be really great is if people could just get comfortable with a pause. Even a long pause. Take the deep breath before you dive right in. You don’t have to say “the right thing.” There is no right thing. And if you jump right in in order to relate to someone you might inadvertently alienate them. That is certainly true of the people who have told me what it’s going to be like for me as if they know.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to relate personally to it and sometimes you simply can’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it, but do not underestimate the power of listening. Do not underestimate the power of a little bit of silence. Don’t feel like you have to fill the void. You don’t have to. You can’t fix it. And that’s okay.

Now for all you jokers who plan to comment that people mean well even after I warned you not to, resist the urge or tomorrow I’ll short-sheet your bed.

12 thoughts on “How to Talk to Someone Who Has Cancer: Take a Deep Breath and Pause

  1. I just heard something the other day that strikes home with your closing remarks: “If you’re talking, you’re not listening.” Love it as I tend to talk too much and not listen enough. XO

  2. What is short-sheeting? I love this. So true. I have my own wonderful list of the most ridicilous things people say. Can we add, stay positive. Urgh. Emily when we going for that walk xxx

    • Short-sheeting is making up a bed so that the top sheet LOOKS as if it’s put on right (tucked into the end of the bed and open at the top end) but it’s actually folded in half, such that both ends are at the top, innocently folded back over the blanket. A great trick to play on a honeymoon couple just about to take off on a train trip, if you can bribe the porter to let you into their compartment before they arrive at the station (ask me how I know this!)

  3. Everything you write, I wish I had written.
    When I was diagnosed, my mother, after a couple sleepless nights 1300 miles away, finally made it to my doorstep to hug me. She went to bed, and got up the next morning to go prepare. Her first stop was the grocery store and some weirdo she barely knew in high school who stalks her (and their whole class) on facebook came up to her and started blathering and asked why she was in town. Without knowing how to reply, she just blurted out that her daughter had cancer. He immediately began listing off all of the people he knew who had died.
    My mum, bless her heart, said that her first instinct was to punch the freak in his stupid mug, but instead, she just turned away, completely in shock, and walked away while he was still talking.
    I guess I just wanted to add that these things should apply to the caregivers as well. The support system is often as terrified as the patient.

    • Totally. Good for her for walking away. We have had people say ridiculous stuff. One person when talking to my husband in the early days of us finding out told him he could kiss any promotion at work good bye. Nice.

  4. So great! (smart keys just turned that into “dog rear,” btw). I loved this. Thank you for starting the conversation. I, for one, tend to do far too much talking, to feel like I should know what to say, for all the reasons you named. “Take a breath” and “listen” are good mantras no
    matter what the situation-but especially because so often I really DON’T know what to say.

    • Yes you know it is funny I still don’t know what to say to someone else even though I have gone through this. It is not easy. That’s why I think that a pause is good.

  5. oops long post got wiped out and no energy to write it again! Just (short version) to say check out Deborah Orr’s article at
    which says similar stuff. I went into work bald for the first time the other week cos it was hot and the scarf was itchy and a colleague said ‘ you know there’s a really good wig maker in Brighton…’ I sensed that she felt it was a personal affront that I had not bothered to protect her from the sight of me. (I have of course got a perfectly good wig if I wanted to look like Tina Turner after an electric shock, which I currently don’t but maybe later)
    Oh – and before I forget. The Rat post was stunningly good and probably your best yet – altho I started reading the blog relatively late. You really must publish. You cheer me up no end!
    (four down, two to go…)

    • Great to hear from you Alison. Tell that wig woman to get a Vag Toupee. If you haven’t read that post of mine look it up and it will really cheer you up… Good for you to be over the hump. How are you hanging in? xxxx Keep in touch please.

  6. I’m hanging in. Feel a bit rough days 1 – 6 ie queasy unless I eat the equivalent of a whole horse every 30 minutes, which I strive to do. As a result everyone says I look ‘well’ which I think means I look ten pounds heavier – which I probably am. Ho hum. They’ve reduced my dose as I was neutropenic the first two times and in hospital and I now have the added pleasure of injecting myself days 1 – 5 with some magic potion GCSF designed to promote white cells after the poison to kill everything. Isn’t science wonderful? Days 7 -20 I feel increasingly normal although I seem emotionally more fragile and can get grumpy so people have to watch it. I would bite my lip but that would cause damage :o) Are you beginning to forget the past and just get on with it? I do forget even now for long periods of time on the good days and am probably quite freaky in that I don’t define myself at all by my ‘illness’. I know it may sound weird but if you’re going to get cancer then breast cancer seems one of the best sorts to get and there are lots more (incurable) and more horrible things to be diagnosed. Oops sorry – getting philosophical. Time to do something else!

Leave a Reply