These are my top 15 out of what felt like several thousand irritating things said to me when I had cancer. Most of them became the motivation for writing The Two Faces of Cancer book because I hope to create understanding and compassion for cancer patients.
Each time something irritated me, I would think, ‘great, more writing material’ and at the time this stopped me crying or responding from anger. Although I’m sure the comments were not said with malice, I found them insensitive and thoughtless and they hurt when I was feeling fragile, vulnerable and lacking in confidence.
1. “Are you going to live?” “I hope so”
2. “Will your baby have cancer?” “I hope not”
Both these questions were shocking and upsetting to hear, and precisely the sort of questions which should be thought but not asked.
3. “Will your baby loose its hair?” WTF and that is about 8,000th on the list of things I’m currently worried about.
4.“Only the good die young” Thanks.
5.“Do still you counsel for nasty diseases?” “Like cancer? Yes I do” Is the word cancer awkward for you?
6.“Chemo has many nasty side effects” (from an ex-Macmillan nurse) The reply which went through my head was “Yes I know, I have had 10 cycles of chemo, which by my calculations is currently 10 cycles more that you”
7.“You look well” I’d think, but wouldn’t say, “did I look unwell?” or “compared to what?” Instead I mustered my biggest cheesiest un-sincerest smile ever and say “and so do you”
8. “Are you well?” translates in my mind to “has your cancer come back?” “How are you” is quiet sufficient
9.“You’re so positive, brave, strong blah blah blah”. No I have been to hell and back. I did cry, rant and rage (a lot) but just not in front of you.
10.“You’ll beat cancer with your outlook” No I will just have all the treatment available, crack on with my life and hope for the best. The word ‘beat’ really irritated me, no one ‘beats’ cancer. The treatment either does or doesn’t work.
11.“My problems seem nothing compared to what you are going through” I felt I was being seen as a victim by this comment. Cancer provided a valuable life lesson in perspective, yes. I used to moan about there not being the right butter at the shops, a traffic jam, the weather etc etc, but in comparison to dying it really doesn’t matter. Cancer shatters lives and destructs families, but life itself is beautiful, whether there is the right brand of butter on the supermarket shelves or not. Cancer helped me see past these minor inconveniences to the bigger picture of life and death of choice and meaning.
12. “I saw/heard/read about a cancer cure” Some of these articles are interesting and helpful, BUT I’m putting my trust in medicine, research, trials and an oncologist, rather than the juice from tree bark sourced from a hill top somewhere in the Andes being sold on eBay via a PayPal account.
13. “Have you got cancer in your family?” Yes, most people have. No, my cancer was not genetic. No, it’s not my family’s fault. No, I haven’t passed this onto the girls. No, I don’t know why or how, it just is. They always look a bit horrified if I go on to say that half of us will get cancer at some point in our lives.
14. “I was going to text/call/email/visit… but I wanted to give you space” Well-meaning no doubt, but why didn’t you? For me this was avoidance, which increased my isolation. A message asking after a cancer patient will go a million miles. It shows you are in their thoughts, but there is no pressure for them to respond or perform.
15. “You’re so lucky” Yes, I live a lovely life. I live a lovely life because I make my choices count and don’t spend my energy doing things that aren’t going to make me happy. I live with a life-threatening disease and a daily dose of death, does that make me quite so lucky?
Cancer seemed to involve a lot of people wanting to hug me. Some hugs were more welcome and genuine than others. When an unwelcome hug was on its way, I would use the “I have low immune system and don’t want to catch anything” excuse and swerve.
Cancer was difficult enough without having experiencing, managing and responding to the above which I felt was about their needs and not mine. I began to sense un-genuine from several miles off and developed an efficient radar for those who genuinely cared and were concerned for me, and those who wanted to gawp at the horror in front of them. I know it’s awkward and people don’t know what to say, but I’d rather hear that than pointless platitudes, insensitive comments or ill thought out questions. Please please please think about what you are going to ask a cancer patient and then take a second to check in and ask yourself why. Is it going to help or support them? How might your question impact on the person you are asking it to? Or is it about your own curiosity?
What comments irritated you when you had cancer? What was it about them that you found irritating? How did you respond to these?